Tuesday, December 26, 2006


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I am still in the midst of moving from the Detroit home to Sterling Heights. There is quite some distance between them and with my work schedule being rather full, it is difficult to make more than two or three trips up per week to make repairs and transfer my meager belongings into the new house. Aside from that, there have been the perfunctory holiday obligations i.e. business parties, friends, and Janice's family gatherings to attend. Each year they seem increase in number and duration. At least they serve alcohol.

As if I didn't have enough to worry about already, I have been fighting this very nasty and determined cold along the way. I suspect it was triggered by an allergic reaction to the dust and mold that had accumulated in the new home's ill-maintained furnace. After spending the better part of last Monday taking apart, cleaning, and rewiring the furnace of the Sterling Heights home, I began to cough and develop a severe sore throat. This is my fault for not wearing a dust mask. The blower and motor were covered in 3/4 of an inch of sheer crap and struggled to spin at all. I probably saved myself several hundred dollars in repairs and heating costs with one day of solid cleaning. I suppose, in hindsight, it's worth sneezing and coughing for a week.

So, I'm not as far ahead in painting and patching as I'd like to be and I'd prefer be installing the new windows or putting on the deck right now. We are also short-handed at work and there is no time off available for me to use, even were I to have the vacation time. Fortunately, there is no real hurry and Janice is super-organized when comes to packing and moving. I would be lost without her help.

Kol Tuv

(More updates to come!)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Neturei Karta: And You Thought I Was Crazy?

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Recently, ranking members of the Neturei Karta joined President Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel Holocaust denial convention in Iran. I am ashamed to admit that some of my own cousins are among their numbers. The scary part is something very common among Chasidim; the impossibility for others to tell us apart. The guy in the back of the photo could be my uncle or even my grandfather. If I were still wearing the traditional levush, or chasidic garb, I too could easily be mistaken for one of these clowns. That is, until you speak with me.

I am not going to get into any debates about Israel, religious philosophy, and halacha. I am equally critical of both while, at the same time, understanding the necessity for both secular and religious underpinnings to Israeli society. I also feel the Palestinians have gotten a very raw deal. That is, however, a far cry from asking that Israel pack up and go away. I cannot, for the life of me, understand which Torah, Talmud, Jewish Law, or history book these traitors are reading from. Even if one agrees to the premise of their argument (I certainly do not) i.e. Messianism as the sole precursor to Jewish statehood, at this point the argument is moot. Since the rise of pan-Arab and Moslem nationalism, the nation of Israel and Jews around the world are in a state of Sakanah (danger) and that physical threat of terrorism trumps any and all other considerations.

As matter of Pikuach Nefesh for our state and ourselves, the Neturei Karta should be OUTLAWED in Israel and put into Cherem (excommunication) everywhere else on Earth. If the Israelis somehow saw it fit to outlaw the Kach Party (bad move I think), they should have no qualms whatsoever about throwing these assholes right out of the country. Then again, it's Israel; the land where what shouldn't be is law and what should be doesn't have a coalition strong enough to enact it.

It is one thing to harbor deep resentment for a nation that doesn't share your principles and beliefs. One should be encouraged to dissent and to argue those beliefs in any forum available. Yet, to actively rub shoulders with our sworn enemies in a manner of agreement with their core ideals is plain old-fashioned treason and should be handled as such. I respect dissent; it is what defines me. I cannot and will not offer even one word of compassion for those who physically join forces with those who swear to kill us.

Am Yisroel, b'Eretz Yisroel, Chai L'Olam!

(....and to the Neturei Karta...FUCK YOU!)

Kol Tuv

Friday, December 08, 2006

Usefulness Leads to Nothing

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There are times I feel the world’s indifference to my existence more than others. I never expected the natural universe to become codependent or subservient to my personal wants. I just feel empty of any sense of love for anything at times. I want to interact with something I won’t ever expect to love me nor should it expect to love me in return. I am tired of having ‘strings attached’, because most of the time, I am on being led around by the vast array of tendons anchored to my person by others.

This is the price of being dependable. You become only as valued as your ability to perform. I know this sounds somewhat shallow, but I see the effects of the effort and changes I endure for others and every so often realize that I am nothing more to them than a useful tool; taken out when needed and buried beneath the more popular or pleasing utensils when not, and otherwise, without such specific purpose, forgotten and left to rust. This must be what it is like for someone entering a nursing home to be storaged until holidays or death.

My whole life has been dedicated to one sort of usefulness or another. My father used me like a packmule to cart his tools while training me to be his trophy genius-son. My mother used me to run her stores and earn her some good money, but after that, I didn’t exist. My ex-wife saw me a stepping stone into married society and then, when my usefulness vanished for that end, I became nothing more than a child-support payment and convenient scapegoat for everything wrong with the world. I am the mule-scapegoat hybrid. Send in the crypto-zoologists!

I suspect that some people have actually loved me and I had no idea what to do with that. I do favors for those who ask because that’s who I am and it's also the only way I can be assured of their attention. they don't call me to have fun, just to get the job done. One can assume that my dependability leads people to think well of me, too. I have to stop expecting anything in return or this old man will continue to be disappointed by those who he thinks he can trust with his emotions. I have to stop being angry because of the way others use me. They can’t help themselves any more than I can at this point. Reading this, one can be sure to get a very negative and defensive response from the accused. They can’t imagine themsleves as ‘users’. No one ever does.

It’s too bad and too sad. There are so many thoughts and feelings to sort out. I want to get even with the world sometimes, but I don’t know what that would accomplish. Revenge just isn’t useful and ends up backfiring on the doer. Chas ve shalom I should ever lose my ability to be useful to someone. If that ever occurs, I wouldn’t exist at all! My biggest fear is becoming that 'useless nothing'. I will be found among the other undervalued items and the holders will wonder "Why are we still keeping this around?" That is maybe what nothing feels like.

You will find that the mere resolve not to be useless, and the honest desire to help other people, will, in the quickest and delicat-est ways, improve yourself.” (John Ruskin,1819 - 1900)

“Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” (Mark Twain,1835 - 1910)

Kol Tuv

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Chashmonayim: Motive & Opportunity?

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In the traditional one-dimensional Orthodox ‘theory of everything’, the story of Chanukah is one of noble God-fearing revolutionaries fighting a paganistic and savage conqueror; an occupying force hell-bent on destroying the Jewish faith and forcing its people to blend in with the rest of the Greek Empire. The war is viewed as yet another classic struggle of absolutes i.e. Good vs. Evil, with no in betweens and no hope for our sainted heroes without supernatural intervention and yet another supernatural event to affirm the kedusha of their victory. This, in a nutshell, is Orthodox view of every conflict in history. For now, we will focus solely on repairing the damage done to the Chanukah story.

The Chazal tell us that Matisyahu and his sons were the first to rebel, becoming incensed at the erection of Greek statue in the town square of Modin. We are told that this was the final insult that led to open revolt against Antiochus. Were the Chashmonayim really the only ones upset about this? You mean to tell me that there wasn’t one single Jew from anywhere else who also hated the invaders, and that all of Israel was passively enduring this harsh rule? I hardly think so. Weren’t other Jews suffering hardships of the occupation as well? Where were they and why haven’t we heard more about them?

Revolutions and uprisings are populist ventures. Populism tends to be a minority affair in terms of numbers. It is rare that populist movements catch on widely unless there are many other social or political variables in place that push the movement into the limelight. Had it not been for the First World War, the final decimation of an already crumbling Russian economy, and the political and religious intrigue surrounding the Romanovs, Bolshevism would have remained a fringe, albeit still rather vocal, philosophical movement. The American Revolution, too, was a populist ideal, as fewer than one-third of the colonists supported the war.

Just how many Jews participated in the revolt we will never know, but if it mirrors any of the other populist revolutions throughout history, the numbers would be somewhere between one-tenth and one-third of the Jewish population. I doubt that these men were all Chashmonayim or Kohanim, so there had to have been thousands of common Jews waiting for a leader to step up and take the nation to war. This man was Matisyahu.

Why ultimately did the Chashmonayim lead the revolt and not others? One would think that any devout, pissed-off Jew would have taken up arms, yet these Kohanim appear to have been first and most vocal. Why them? You have to remember, these were the days when the Kohanim were both the religious and political leaders, controlling not only the Bais HaMikdosh, but also education, a huge chuck of the economy, and they served as political advisors to the Melucha. Having a Kohen of some stature and fame sanction the undertaking lends authority to the effort. Men could go out from all over the hills and farms and invoke the name of ‘Matisyahu HaKohen’ and people would respond. If the Kohen says to do it, then it must be that HaShem is also in favor of it. This was true of many cultures, where war or revolt could not take place before the religious leaders gave it their blessings.

This revolt was brewing for some time already among the general populace of Israel. It is likely that the reason the Greek authorities began to erect statues in the squares of Jewish towns was an act of control; an announcement that “Greece is here!” and the Jews better wise up and behave accordingly. Knowing the stubborn nature of my people as I do, I would not have enjoyed the dangerous job of trying to collect taxes on behalf of the Greek government in ancient Israel. The Greeks, like the Romans many years later, were very happy to oblige the local peoples their superstitions and beliefs as long as the tax money was collected and order was preserved. For the Syrian-Greeks to have now begun to attack the religious authority and culture of Israel meant that there were already widespread troubles for the pagan occupiers.

(It is true that Alexander’s foreign policy was quite lenient and it is possible that Antiochus would have followed that course of action were it not for the Jews taking some advantage of the power shift after Alexander’s death. We tend to view Antiochus’ crackdown on Judaism as an action rather than a reaction. Antiochus may have been anxious to establish his own prominence in the wake of Alexander’s reign and found it difficult to win over the people. Then again, maybe Antiochus was just a total asshole.)

Matisyahu and his sons, the Maccabeans, truly deserve to have the revolt named for them. Matisyahu and his sons were prominent and public figures, easily accessible to the Seleucid gendarmes and those Jews who collaborated with the occupiers. They knew the risks of fighting a power with heavy numbers, heavy arms, and a very long reach. They knew their status and their lives were on the line. For a public and wealthy figure to stick his neck out like that shows uncommon valor. The Chashmonayim also did something that would be considered unique in our day and age. They actually fought alongside those Jews who joined the cause. Matisyahu and his sons never hid behind the Ephod or the smoke of the Ketores. They fought and died with brave common men fighting for a common purpose. I wish we had more leaders like that today. (I could offer a list of several, but I doubt you’ll like any of them.)

It is also probable that not all Kohanim and Jews were enthused by Matisyahu’s war on Antiochus. Some of them had already decided to cooperate with his regime, serving both the interests of Seleucids and their own ambitions. Some of those certainly hoped to influence the Seleucids to allow Jewish practice to go unchallenged. Some hoped to ride out the storm and pray for the best outcome. One can be sure that when news of revolt spread to Yerushalayim that there were many whose only response could be summed up by a heavy sigh and “Oh shit, not again.” To be honest, had I lived in those times, I would have had very mixed feelings about a revolt with such little apparent chance of success. After all, I have always been a bit of a ‘Hellenist’ deep down.

In Shmoneh Esreh during Chanuka we add “…..strong over the weak, the few over the many, and pure over the impure.” The authors of this tefillah mistakenly assumed there were miracles involved that allowed for a victory where none should be had. Occupations never last long because, as we have learned from countless such endeavors, since the indigenous peoples fight much harder for their home turf and, knowing the terrain, have a distinct home-field advantage that no number of conquering battalions can master. In truth, our numbers did not need to be greater to win; we only had to apply the force of our will. In such a situation, strengths and weaknesses become ambiguous. In terms of ‘few and many’, it is likely that many of those initially reluctant to join the revolt did wait and see how successful the campaign would become before taking an active role. The ‘few’ may have become ‘many’ as time went on.

There is one other point to make as to why the Chashmonayim and other Kohanim may have led the revolt, and it isn’t quite as noble as one would imagine, yet I wouldn’t say that it diminishes their heroism in any way. Now it is alleged that the Kohanim had were hot-heads; men prone to bad tempers and of little patience. It is surprising then, that it took so long for them to speak out and take action, considering that Antiochus had already screwed with the Avodas HaBayis. That should have been quite enough! Yet, it wasn’t. What other factors, in addition to the incident in Modin, may have contributed to Matisyahu’s anger? What else was going on that might have pushed him to the edge but not quite over it?

I do not know how the tax structure of ancient Israel was set up, how it was enforced, or how much was really collected. We do know that Shlomo HaMelech imposed very high taxes on the Jews and his son, Rechavam, when advised to lower the people’s tax burden, laughed at the idea and ended up splitting the kingdom in two because of it. Aside from the being taxed by the melucha, Jews also had the mitzvah of paying teruma and ma’aser to Kohanim and Levi’im. I am not sure how accountants handled the legitimate deductions in those days, but one thing was certain, the more wealth the Jews had to pay out to the Melucha or to Antiochus, the less was available for the Kohanim. Matisyahu and his sons had a very personal stake in the revolt, and I think it played a major role in their ultimate decision to get involved. Even in the American Revolution, which few would argue was not a noble cause, it was not until taxation became the issue that common man and land-owner alike were willing join the idealists in risky combat. I think our Chashmonayim saw their former status shrinking and fearing they might have to get real jobs, like the rest of the Jews, did not wish to give up an aristocratic and lucrative way of life.

The Chashmonayim may have had very good reasons other than money for fighting to maintain their economic status. Like it or not, whether a Kohen is a self-serving bastard or a tzadik gamur, it is still a mitzvah to pay terumah and ma’aser. If the Kohen, charged with ensuring the overall spiritual health of the nation, must advocate the fulfillment of all mitzvos, then these, too, should be high on their list of mitzvos to promote. We don’t feel the burden of those mitzvos involved with farming today, but in an agrarian society like ancient Israel the laws governing growing, harvest, and tithing were daily considerations. As in all things, there were likely to be those who were 100% sincere and those whose sincerity was somewhat lacking.

Heroism takes on many forms and has many motivations. Actions have a strange way of hiding the true intent. Those that appear as heroes and icons for their courage are often not acting from noble purpose. Let it be said again that none of the ulterior motives the Chashmonayim may, or may not, of had take away one bit from their heroism and bravery. If their intents were noble, selfish, or a little of both, it matters not. They took great risks and they sacrificed. I think they might have waited too long to start a revolt, but everything in life comes down to the proper timing. It’s possible that Matisyahu deliberately provoked the enemy in Modin as a feign to draw attention from the grass roots organizing that had been going on for months.

Honestly, I never take the Chazal at their word for anything anymore. Their take is always one-dimensional and shallow.

Maccabee Chai!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Man Pays $20K For Non-Existent Child

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Just when I thought I had heard everything regarding divorce, custody, and support issues, this story reminds me that there are always new lows that opportunistic ex-spouses will stoop to in order to squeeze another dollar from a non-custodial parent. If there were an honest child support system anywhere in the US, this following story could never have happened, no matter how vindictive or cunning the ex-wife became. The system not only offered her a opportunity to create the scam, but it refused to do anything about it once alerted by the ex-husband.


Man paid $20,000 in support for nonexistent child

The Associated Press

December 13, 2004

ALBUQUERQUE — Steve Barreras’ attorney said he had never seen anything like it.

After Barreras was hauled into court, peppered with threats and demands for money for a child he adamantly denied fathering five years ago and even paid out $20,000 to support, his ex-wife was under a judge’s order to produce the child.

So last week, Viola Trevino picked up a 2-year-old girl and her grandmother off the street, promised them a trip to see Santa Claus and $50 and took the girl to court, alleging it was her daughter.

“I have seen hundreds of jury trials and I have never seen anything like this,” said Rob Perry, Barreras’ attorney.

It was the latest chapter in a bizarre case that has prompted Gov. Bill Richardson’s office to call for a full investigation. The elaborate ruse stretched over five years and involved fake DNA evidence, a forged Social Security number and birth and baptismal certificates, court records show.

Last week, state District Judge Linda Vanzi ruled the child did not exist.

After feeding the stand-in daughter and her grandmother hamburgers, it seems Trevino parked near the courthouse, where she left the grandmother in the car and took the child into court. Only when the grandmother followed her into court did Trevino admit that the child was not hers.

The 52-year-old Trevino announced to a family-court judge in December 1999 that she gave birth to a girl fathered by Barreras that September. Barreras, 47, who says he had a vasectomy in 1998, said it was impossible. The couple had two adult children, a son and a daughter. Paternity tests were ordered, and, in February 2001, Barreras was ordered to pay Trevino child support. Barreras continued to protest.

Trevino was ordered to bring in a birth certificate, but she did not.

Her adult daughter was even fired from a hospital after she was caught attempting to create documents pertaining to the birth of a Stephanie Trevino, according to court records. Then another DNA paternity test was ordered, this time done by a private doctor, but Trevino did not obey the court order and instead went back to the same company where the first test was done. Court records show that both DNA tests were done by a friend of the couple’s daughter.

Because of the DNA matches, Perry said the Child Enforcement Division of the state Human Services Department garnisheed Barreras’ paycheck , forcing him to pay child support.

“How can this happen? It is like a plane wreck caused by a cascading series of events,” he said. Betina Gonzales McCracken, spokeswoman for the department, said her agency is not to blame because the division was only enforcing a court order for payment of child support.

Now, I realize that this story is a couple of years old, but it is still ongoing. The ex-wife was ordered to pay back $15,000, has refused and, to make things worse, is demanding alimony payments! Gov. Richardson, who had promised to look into the matter and make sure that Mr. Barreras was refunded his money from the FOC, reneged on his offer. Apparently, even a sitting governor has no power when it comes to the misuse of power by an FOC office.

This is not the fault of a scheming ex-wife. This travesty of justice is the fault of a system that is either too lazy or motivated by its own internal financial concerns to check into claims of fraud designed to bilk ex-husbands out of their money. I have had my own problems in the past with FOC agents and bureaucrats and their response to claims of fraud, even with irrefutable proof of such fraud, is generally a cold, numbing silence. They simply refuse to enforce honesty in the system. If the system was balanced, without automatically favoring women over fathers or men, then the presumption of her claims would have fallen flat as soon as Mr. Barreras refuted them.

The true test of fairness and balance and the prevailing attitudes among FOC officials that oppose this balance can be seen in the overwhelming opposition of FOC staff, judges, divorce lawyers, women’s groups, and even prosecutors to the various forms of the Shared Parenting Bill. Their excuse for not allowing fathers equal time are based in two fallacies. First, if the court allows equal time from the get go, then abusive fathers with not be weeded out and the children will not be protected. What? If the father is abusive, the mother should prove it to the court, rather than assume that he must be abusive because she says so. This stupid excuse proves my point that the courts, in spite of the mounting evidence to the contrary, don’t believe that a woman would ever lie when it comes to her children. (Remember Susan Smith?)

Second, opponents of shared parenting think that the only reason a man would want 50% custody of his child is to avoid paying child support. This theory defies all logic and shows the capricious and vicious nature of the FOC. If a man has his child for half the year, then he is already supporting that child i.e. feeding, clothing, housing, etc. while the child is in his care. Their claim makes not one lick of sense, unless there is something else going on behind the scenes that has nothing to do with supporting children, but rather supporting the system that collects the support and the lawyers who make millions of dollars litigating such contentious matters as support and visitation.

Want to know why the system isn’t being fixed? Think about who stands to lose from reform. Clue: It’s not the Dads.

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What Kind of Bug Are You?

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Today at the office we had way too much free time to banter about. Inevitably, after a half hour or more of random babbling, we find out something about one of our coworkers that we were better off never having found out. We also tend to play games on occasion. For a while we played the 'movie game', which consists of naming all movies that start with a particular letter. Today, however, the topic was bugs, and which sort of insect, if you could choose one, would you prefer to be?

Needless to say that the ladies present chose either lady beetles or butterflies. Not bad choices, but still unimaginative. Choosing a bug simply because it is pretty or because it's the only one you can think of on the spot isn't all that amazing a feat. One fellow decided he would be a praying mantis, rather predictable considering his inflated ego, and another a water strider, a bug that actually walks on water. (No, he isn't a devout Christian.) Forced by the competition at this point to be original and witty, I waited patiently for my turn to speak up. I can't stomach any games, no matter how silly, that don't provide some artistic challenge, and topping the water strider (a very, very cool bug) would require some quick thinking.

So here's my response:

"If I could be a bug, I would be dung beetle. Why, you ask? This way, when my life turns to SHIT, I'd already be an expert at handling it!"

(For those of you who haven't seen a water strider, here is good picture:)

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Moving: No Cat Left Behind?

I found a great deal on a much newer home some 40 miles from where I now reside. It is about twice the size of where I am now, but for the price, I would be stupid not to take the offer. The home is in great shape, and other than some cosmetic work, a deck, and vinyl windows, it requires no extensive upgrading or repair. With a good cleaning and a coat of paint, the house is move-in ready.

The only thing holding me back is my sense of responsibility for the various forms of wildlife that frequent my home in search of a meal or somewhere warm and dry to crash every now and then. I am pretty sure that the next owners won’t be so generous with their table scraps and extra cardboard. I would honestly feel guilty leaving them behind. I feel that after all that had been taken from them in terms of habitat and safety, that we should owe them something back for the imposition on their species. It’s only fair.

I am aware that I have no control over their destiny, and even when I help them through a tough winter or feed them treats they wouldn’t normally find while scouring through trash bins and compost piles, I realize that our relationship is not personal nor is it going to become any deeper than it isn’t already. My feelings are my own internal creation and Nature cares nothing for them. I feel as I do, and I don’t plan on offering any apologies.

It was nice having the same pair of cardinals nest close by year after year. The skunks would occasionally tangle with the opossum or the raccoons and there would be some ‘fragrant’ after-effects lingering sometimes for days. I happen to like that smell. Late at night, one can hear the opossum eating from the large food dish outside, where they simply turn the dish over on its side and eat until something or someone interrupts their midnight buffet. I will miss sitting out with the raccoons while they sift through the scraps of food and carefully pick out the best pieces for themselves. The bird feeder will come with me and I’m sure that where there is seed and sunflowers, there will be birds to eat them.

The stray cats all have names and numbers and I am debating which ones I will be taking with me. Murray is a small orange tabby who was born under my neighbor’s home. Murray was named after a cat from a Showtime series “Dead Like Me.” He was taken in by another female cat named Firefly; named so because she is completely dark except for the very tip of her tail, which is bright white. Firefly is very timid and she trained Murray to be just as skittish. Firefly was replaced as Murray’s mentor by Dragonfly, another dark cat, with the mooching skills of a seasoned professional. Though he tries to get Murray to be more social with humankind, Murray’s early socialization won’t allow him to get much closer to me than two or three feet. Murray isn’t shy about asking for anything though and if the outdoor food bowl is empty, he will make himself heard at the kitchen window. Murray has been around my home since being a tiny kitten and, sadly, will likely be left behind when I move.

Princess and Silo will adjust. I will have to lock them in the new house for a few months just to acclimate them to their new surroundings, but I am sure they will be fine. With more space, the two won’t be crossing paths often, and therefore Princess, the calico, won’t be throwing her usual hissie-fits when another cat comes within her range. Silo responds to her wailing with deference, indifference, and sometimes he goads her into a fight. She is very easily manipulated because of her paranoia and control freak-ism. Silo probably thinks she’s an idiot.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about the move. My neighbors have changed a few times in five years; some better, some not so better. The new area has a lot of unknowns, is quite a ways north of the city and much, much quieter. As a ghetto child, moving into less tumultuous surroundings might have a disconcerting effect, but a larger living space would also mean more space for another human being besides myself (she knows who she is), and I think she wants me to move just so we can get a bigger bed!

Either way, I will keep everyone posted on how things go. Everything should be decided within the next couple of weeks. The blog will stay active in the meantime.

Kol Tuv

They Just Won't Get Jobs

I have started asking the cats to find jobs and start earning some money. I cannot confirm this for sure, but as of today, I suspect not one of them has even bothered to check the printed want-ads or post a resume on-line. When I ask them why they haven't sought gainful employment, they merely offer a sort of non-chalant blank-ish stare, with eyes half-closed as if they are deliberately trying to put themselves into a deepened state of eternal indifference.

Dogs have jobs. In fact, there is whole group of canines known as 'working breeds'. No working cats to be found, I'm afraid. So far, feline unemployment is holding steady at 100%.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Esther & Achashveyrosh: Love Unexpected

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Did you ever wonder what exactly it was Esther did for Achashveyrosh in the bedroom that was so special he not only ignored his own personal house rules, but even altered the domestic policies of his entire kingdom on her behalf? Whatever it was that Esther did for him must have truly blown his mind. Yet, all things considered, how would this have been possible? Let’s check this out.

Achashveyrosh likely possessed a large harem and there had to have been many young and beautiful girls among those conscripted into his sexual service. That Esther was in some manner endowed with special sexual skills that the others did not possess is not evident. Achashveyrosh, typical of kings of his time and culture, could take any woman he desired and probably had vast selection of sexual partners, both prior to and after the ‘talent search’ that resulted in Esther’s abduction. The question as to what Esther possessed to win his special favor remains a mystery. Could it have been something other than sexual?

Esther, adopted by her uncle Mordechai HaTzadik, was probably raised in an environment lacking any sexual context. So where exactly would she have developed the necessary sexual or sensual talents she may have used on the king? Winning the sexual and emotional affection of a man like Achashveyrosh could not have been easy. Consider the range of his sexual appetites and the ongoing competition among the members of his harem; all trying their damnedest to be the sexiest lover – all vying to become the queen. It is unlikely that any of the other girls in Achashveyrosh’s harem would offer any helpful advice to the new arrival that might jeopardize their own aspirations. Becoming queen meant becoming somebody; something more than just a sexual slave girl living at the king’s behest. We can be pretty sure that none of the other women with whom Esther would be sharing the king, gave her one bit of good advice on how to please him.

So, if there was advice to be given, where did it come from? According to the Megillah, Esther was snatched up in an intense and determined search for a new harem after the execution of Vashti. Those particular ministers in charge of procurring the right sort of girls would likely have coached the candidates, collectively and individually, on how to avoid displeasing the king. If the girls taken didn’t manage to please the king, these ministers might likely face the wrath of a very unpredictable and violent monarch. After all, everyone was well aware of Achashveyrosh’s fits of rage and subsequent depression, as was evident from his behavior with Vashti. Just how much the eunuchs could have taught Esther in such a short period of time is not known.

It’s fair to say at this point that the entirety of Esther’s sexual experience, until the time she entered the king’s chamber willingly, occurred under severe duress. Esther probably resolved herself to her fate and, knowing that her survival depended upon being as pleasing as possible, learned quickly the likes and dislikes of the king. Held in captivity, she may have kicked into a ‘survival’ mode that permitted her not only to subject herself to the king, but it also provided the emotional wherewithal to mentally ‘escape’ inside herself while with the king. Her body was doing one thing while her ‘soul’ was doing another. We just call this ‘faking it’. Esther wouldn’t be the first or the last to feign sexual interest or pleasure with a man whom she despised.

Yet, even with faking a like or dislike of the act, one cannot fake ease or comfort in sexual experience. An experienced lover knows full well when he or she has just crawled into bed with a novice. To fake it well, Esther would have had to have some positive sexual experience by which to gauge her performance. To a sexual beast like Achashveyrosh, her body language and movements would have to mimic those of a real expert, and there was no way for her to determine what those subtle, and not so subtle, signals would be. Her ruse would be discovered even if Achashveyrosh paid her little concern or was even intoxicated duiring their time together. Being in a royal house, where there was probably plenty of spying, perhaps for the king’s safety, she would have had to deceive her handlers as well.

Now, it is very possible that Achashveyrosh, known for being a vicious tyrant, enjoyed the deflowering of inexperienced girls and may have not cared one bit for their feelings and their sexual skill level meant nothing to him. Yet, if that were so, how would Esther have ever found favor with him at all? Achashveyrosh must have developed some feelings for her, as he had once for Vashti, and those affections he held protected her later on. So how, lacking the necessary sexual skills we imagine she may have needed, did she gain his affections, especially as she was possibly ‘faking it’ and the king might have picked up on this insincerity at some point?

Many have answered that Esther had a particular non-sexual charm which pleased Achashveyrosh. For those men who have had several or many lovers, some women, even those with somewhat lesser sensual abilities, are often much better company and nicer to be around than the ones who are great in bed. I can say that I have dated a few dozen women or more and there are some that were awesome in bed and others, though not so sexually stimulating, that were simply a pleasure to be around all the time. There are also issues of trust, and a woman that can be trusted, is a woman that makes a man feel secure and comfortable. Perhaps Esther was one of those women who acted without guile or ulterior motive, having never asked Achashveyrosh for any personal favors. Perhaps she also had an innate understanding of the dominant-submissive role-play that worked well with the king’s fragile ego. Maybe she decided to shun all the advice and just be ‘herself’, without any coquettish scheming or manipulative strategies that an Achashveyrosh would likely have seen a thousand times already and grown weary of.

Now, I don’t wish to paint Achashveyrosh in too much of a sympathetic light, but let’s get one thing straight; he was just a man like all others. Achashveyrosh, for all his other faults, was very much capable of love and he wanted to love again as he did for Vashti. He could tell the difference between happy, sad, and phony. A king has to rely on those instincts when making policy or forming alliances. Maybe this tyrant had a soft spot and a sensitivity that did not filter down into the way he governed. Probably, he was taught to govern with a stern hand because this was how a nation, according to his ministers, had to be governed. Maybe Achashveyrosh was conflicted because he always had to live a double life and hated it. The simple, honest, and straightforward Esther, making no unusual requests or begging favors; engaging the king without guile and perhaps even recognizing his turmoil, became the sole object of his affection because of her sincere character.

If this is so, then why hadn’t he called on her for so long? Why did she have to take the initiative to see him? Surely, had she won his affections to such a great degree, he would have called upon her more often, if for no other reason than to feel that safety and security of her company if only for a few hours? For the answer, we have to change, not our opinion of Esther, but our assessment of the man called Achashveyrosh.

Achashveyrosh knew that Esther never came to him willingly, neither for the initial beauty pageant or those few occasions that she was summoned to his bed-chamber. The king understood how Esther reacted to his touch and to his person, and that she wasn’t completely comfortable around him. Yet, in a twist of irony that borders on the miraculous, Achashveyrosh was sedated and eased by the woman who he felt may have hated him most. He began to love this innocent woman for her simplicity, and actually felt a sense of guilt and empathy for her plight; so much so that he was resolved not to force himself upon this woman ever again. He knew, deep down, that she never wanted to be his queen, and he would never make the mistake of forcing her, as he had crudely done with Vashti, to ask anything of her that she did not wish to offer willingly. The moment that Esther appeared to the king uninvited and unannounced, may have actually been one of the happiest moments of his life.

Such is the love that Achashveyrosh was capable of giving. Who would have imagined? Esther’s charm alone could not have won the day. It had to have a sympathetic heart and understanding to be recognized and adored. That Achashveyrosh, with all of his glaring faults, would be the one man to truly appreciate Esther’s character, is probably the greatest miracle of Purim.

When we stop viewing the players as one-dimensional archetypes, it opens the possibility for much richer and profound experience within the story. We are no longer limited to rigid judgments of good and evil, but see people as real people, sometimes bad, and other times, surprisingly congenial and honest. In our reassessment of Achashveyrosh and Esther, we haven’t changed any part of the initial tale; only opened the story to resemble people living within the most likely scenario. The natural richness of the Purim story comes to life.

“There is always some madness in love, but there is also always some reason in madness.” (Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900)

Kol Tuv

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Notice to Readers (if there are any left)

I am fairly sure by now that this blog has very few readers, since interest in the topics I discuss are never timely or controversial enough to attract any attention. I have also noticed that comments I offer on many of the other blogs and groups receive no response or acknowledgment. It is true that those within the Jewish community are not interested in engaging with those on the outside, and that is a perfectly natural thing. After all, I do not provide the freak-show atmosphere that some of the still closeted Jewish heretics and Christian evangelicals maintain. People are attracted to enigmas. I cannot help that.

If you ever read this blog, even at gunpoint, please let me know. I would like to get some idea of who is reading and what they may like or dislike about it. If you have a personal complaint about me, my writing, or my philosophy, I would appreciate the critique.

Kol Tuv

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Sister's Love Gone Bad: Miriam

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מצורע דכתיב (במדבר יב) אל נא תהי כמת........Avodah Zara 5a

In Bamidbar 12, we have the story of Miriam becoming Leprous due to her criticism of Moshe’s apparent unwillingness to take a native Israelite as a wife. Moshe married a Kushite, and to Miriam, this was kind of a slap in the face to Israelite women. I don’t know what exactly it was that Miriam was upset about, but, like some siblings do, they must have called a family meeting without inviting the subject of discussion and hashed over the thoughts among themselves. I have no doubt that my mother called a few of those herself on my behalf without asking for my personal participation.

It could be that Moshe’s wife, coming from a different culture and race, created a political trap for Moshe. Perhaps Miriam felt that a leader-king of Israel should have as a mate a woman who is thoroughly Israelite-ish herself, if for no other reason than to show the people, by example, that Moshe, once an Egyptian heir, was truly one of those he sought to govern. Miriam may have seen this marriage to this non-Israelite, as an underlying cause for the persistent rebellion against Moshe’s authority; a rebellion which they did not carry out against Aharon, who seemed to curry more favor with the people. In politics, having a leader who doesn’t share your socio-economic or cultural background sometimes causes the governed to become suspicious of the ruler’s motives. This was clearly evident in Russia, where the people became emotionally predisposed to revolt based upon the Czar’s marriage to a catholic German princess. Moshe just seemed too strange already to the simple Israelites in too many ways, and by taking a bride from another race just made matters worse. This was likely what Miriam was complaining about. It is also likely that she was genuinely concerned for the safety of her little brother, and there was no guile or ulterior motive to her complaint. HaShem, however, did not think it was an issue and struck Miriam with leprosy as punishment for her speaking out. Verse 12:2 bears this out when Miriam says what she believes the people are thinking. She is right.

So, what turned this very accurate and insightful political observation into Loshen Hara and worthy of severe punishment? The fact that Moshe and his wife were not invited to the meeting or that the concerns, legitimate as they might have been, were not shared directly with Moshe. Even speaking from caring and concern without the subject being present is a form of Loshen Hara. The next question is why Leprosy as opposed to some infection of the teeth, gum, or larynx which would seem fitting since that’s where the words came from?

There is a story about the Chofetz Chaim, known for his crusade against Loshen Hara, that as he was aging he began to lose his hearing. A student once asked him. “Rabbi. Aren’t you worried about going deaf?” The Chofetz Chaim thought for a moment and replied, “Well. At least I can be pretty sure at that point that no one will approach me to shout Loshen Hara into my ears.” Loshen Hara, as a phenomena, is a social disorder; there has to be someone to tell it to. Leprosy’s punishment is not that one becomes ill, but that one resides alone while in quarantine and is forbidden from maintaining social contacts. As the song says, “One is the loneliest number.” Thus, a disease requiring quarantine is the best spiritual medicine for gossip.

So, when Aharon pleads with Moshe not to cut Miriam off from family and friends he says “Don’t allow her become like a dead person” i.e. bereft of social contacts, shunned, and eventually forgotten. For Miriam, who was from the beginning of his life a caretaker for Moshe, to be cut off from him and his work would be devastating. Therefore, she was struck with leprosy, and it is comparable to death insofar as it signals an end to her reason for living. Such is the maternal love of a sister for her baby brother that she would risk the wrath of HaShem on his behalf.

Moshe should have considered himself very lucky.

Dasan & Aviram : The Most Likely Scenario

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דף ה,א עבודה זרה

"......עני דכתיב (שמות ד) כי מתו כל האנשים ומאן נינהו דתן ואבירם ומי מתו מיהוי הוו אלא שירדו מנכסיהם"

The Gemara tells us that Dasan and Aviram were the ones who informed on (ratted out) Moshe to the Department of Slavery when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. This offers us two conflicting accounts of these men. On one hand, we are to believe that they collaborated or sought favor with their Egyptian overlords, and then, on the other, the Torah counts them among those willing to follow the very same man they conspired against on a previous occasion, out across the water and into the desert!

We are also told by the Midrash that Dasan and Aviram had a hand in the Chet HaEgel incident at Har Sinai. These two guys, for not having any particular special status other than being grandchildren of a little known tribal elder, sure seemed to get around, especially in a world with a purported 2.2 million refugees! These guys would have to mount some kind of amazing and supernatural biltzkreig of persuasive advertising to get a large number of people to follow their lead into revolt. It doesn’t seem like either of them, both of them, or even when in league with Korach would ever be able to mount an effective revolt considering their small sphere of influence. So what was so special about them and why were they so determined to get back at Moshe that Moshe had to fear them should he return to Mitzrayim too soon?

This idea repeats in at least two other places in the Talmud; in Yerushalmi Nedarim 9 and in Nedarim 64b. To be honest, I could never figure out how the rabbis knew who the informers were. Shemos 4 only mentions that someone squealed to the cops, but it never says who or why. Our Gemara here suggests that Dasan and Aviram were now considered as ‘dead’, since in the interim period between their treachery and Moshe’s vision in the desert, these two men lost all of their status and thus, didn’t matter. This made it safe for Moshe to return to Mitzrayim.

I have a crazy question. How exactly did Dasan and Aviram become wealthy in first place if the entire Jewish nation was enslaved and suffering? No one bothers to explain how that works. One could retrofit into the story a tale about Dasan and Aviram bribing Egyptian taskmasters, taking small bribes (of some sort) from fellow Jews to perhaps escape from work or punishment, and then sift off a percentage of the ‘take’ for themselves. They may have even been well-paid informants, which makes perfect sense. The Egyptians would have to hire a few willing, cooperative Hebrews in order to have spies, managers, and agents on the inside for intelligence gathering, considering that the Jews spoke their own language and maintained their own separate culture. Dasan and Aviram may have also had good intentions, hoping to act as double agents and earn a few bucks on the side. They may have been helping the Egyptian field-boss manipulate the books so as to appear more productive, thus helping the taskmaster’s career in the process. I cannot see the Department of Slavery being any less corrupt than any other government agency since. Be that as it may, the Department of Slavery would likely have needed hundreds of such agents, and to assume that Dasan and Aviram were the dirty rats might be impossible to pinpoint. Let’s try anyway.

Since we have nothing but raw speculation as to how they may have come by their wealth under such harsh conditions, we also still have no clue as to how they lost that wealth later on. If we continue with our ‘most likely’ explanation, it would not be unreasonable, at this point, to assume that the taskmaster that Moshe killed was the one who was doing all the monkey business with Dasan and Aviram. This would also explain how these two came into direct knowledge of Moshe’s role in the killing! The presence of an Egyptian royal among the slaves would have been widely noticed. This unexpected turn of events, along with Pharoah’s mandate for higher productivity, not only killed the brother’s business plan, but also sent them back into hard labor. Once they lost their special status, they were ‘as good as dead’ in their own eyes. Dasan and Aviram blamed Moshe for interfering with their lucrative venture, and that blame turned into a lasting desire for revenge that the brothers carried with them out of Egypt and straight into the Midbar. It would explain why every time there was trouble for Moshe those brothers were somehow involved.

While we are on the subject of informers, we should ask as to why would Dasan and Aviram not report this killing to the authorities? Undoubtedly, the murder of an Egyptian government employee would bring a whole lot of unwanted heat down on that labor sector. It could be that they demanded the culprit step forth or the whole group would be punished. Had Dasan and Aviram not come forth with their testimony, it is possible that innocent persons might have been punished for Moshe’s act. We see what Moshe did as courageous and noble, but others, some Israelites included, might have seen this as bringing nothing but more trouble for an already troubled people. In retrospect, we may hate the brothers because of who they ratted-out or because their motives may not have been 100% pure, but they may have not had a choice in the matter, given the circumstances.

This account, completely concocted in my fertile imagination while pondering the most likely scenario given the circumstances, is not stated anywhere in Torah or Talmud. It does however, make all the pieces fit quite nicely together. Maybe our Sage was trying to do the same thing and looking for a better source than just his own imagination. (I used a most likely scenario, which commonly involves slaves, overseers, government employees, and random opportunists.)

Overall, I think we should cut them some slack. We find that the standards by which we deem a thing ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are often blurred by the various interests of those involved. Dasan and Aviram could have started out with the noblest of motives, but allowed their ultimate selfishness to prevail. They are no less human than we.

Kol Tuv

“I am myself made entirely of flaws; stitched together with good intentions.” (Augustyn Burroughs)

O Forgetful Moses!

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From the Midrash:

"Why were these things duplicated in Deuteronomy? The animals [were duplicated] because of the shesuah and the birds because of the raah vulture -- to teach that one should not be ashamed to say he had forgotten. It is an inference from minor to major; if Moses, the wisest of sages, the greatest of greats, father of the prophets, was not afraid to say he forgot, a person who is not even one of a thousand millions, of multitude of myriads of his disciples' disciples -- how much more so should this person not be afraid to say 'I forgot.'"

The Midrash claims that Moshe forgot about the vulture called ra’ah and about the animal called shesuah. As a result, Moshe duplicated the whole portion, more than a dozen verses, in the Torah. Isn't the Midrash clearly implying that Moshe wrote this portion at least once without dictation from Heaven? Or maybe both times HaShem's dictation was the same, but at least once Moshe failed to record it correctly? In this case, where else might he have erred in recording the words of the HaShem?

There are more than just a few problems with this Midrash. Now I know that may people do not take the Midrash seriously and I know why they don’t. The Midrash has many facets to it, but mostly I believe it serves as a way to reinforce religious faith in the common people. I am not sure if the Rabbis who are quoted in the Midrash actually believed what they wrote, but there is no doubt that they thought others should. Personally, I feel the Chazal used the Midrash as a control on free thinking people who would ask rather obvious questions. By ‘poisoning the well’ with slick diversions and fairy tales, the real questions at hand never need be answered.

This case is classic, where not only does the author try to divert attention from the real question, but he engages in a common and well-known rabbinical argument, thus couching the diversion with the appearance of logical debate, by employing the “Kal ve’chomer”, which means ‘from light to severe’. This is a very common logic scheme utilized throughout the Talmud.

Our Midrash uses the ‘kal v’chomer’ to ‘flip the script’ on the guy asking the good, tough question. Let’s ask the question first to make sure we have it right. Moshe lists the kosher and non kosher animals in one part of Torah and then, later on, repeats the list he already wrote in order to include two animals he neglected to mention the first time around. There are a series of questions that stem from the primary and I’ll list them in order here.

1) If the Torah was either given or dictated to Moshe through Ruach HaKodesh, then how was it possible for him to forget, being that Ruach HaKodesh is not subject to the normal rules of time, space, cognition, and memory?

2) If you say that even those under Ruach HaKodesh sometimes forget, then how can we be sure of anything that anyone who claims Ruach HaKodesh says?

3) If you want to suggest that Moshe was not under the influence of Ruach HaKodesh, then how did he manage to communicate directly with HaShem?

4) Even if one assumes that Ruach HaKodesh wasn’t necessary, one would think that Moshe, of all people, would remember what HaShem said clearly. After all, if HaShem spoke to you, wouldn’t you remember every word from such a profound encounter?

5) In any case, now that we know that Moshe, divinely inspired or not, was prone bouts of forgetfulness when it came to the details of the mitzvos, how many other things did Moshe forget? How many things did he add thinking that he may have forgotten them earlier?

6) Wasn’t anyone proof-reading Moshe’s work? Would he not have at least shown or discussed each mitzvah as it was revealed with either Aharon, the Levi’im, or the Z’keynim? What were they doing?

7) How long did this question linger before any answer was offered at all? Surely, some from the generation, or at least from the ‘multitude of myriads’ who first received the Torah would have noticed the redundancy. So before this clever little Midrash was composed by a rabbi some 1000 years after Sinai, what answer were they given?

8) Could the other two aminals not originally listed by Moshe be inferred by the very rabbinical logic that the Midrash employs to berate the questioner?

9) The Midrash insists that Moshe repeated himself (or HaShem forced him to) in order to teach us to humility and admit when we forget. Then why doesn’t the Torah say anywhere that Moshe admitted he forgot something when he repeated the mitzvos? Certainly, that would have been a great moral lesson, but Moshe never once admits to being senile or overwhelmed.

10) Throughout Torah we are warned many times by Moshe to “Remember and not forget!” Was Moshe reminding the Bnei Yisroel, or himself?

11) Why didn’t HaShem correct Moshe? Certainly, HaShem knew that Moshe had omitted a detail, yet He let it slide. Why?

The above-mentioned questions must leave one wondering how exactly the Torah was given, dictated, and compiled. It is shocking the number of years and effort the rabbis have spent unnecessarily reconciling all these contradictions and without ever asking the sort of questions that would reveal the obvious from the very beginning.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kill the Heretic!

“Heretics, that is, Jews who do not believe in the Torah and in prophecy -- it is a commandment to kill them. If one can kill them with a sword in public -- he should, and if not -- he should act against them with cunning, until he causes them to be killed. How? If he sees one of them fallen into a well and there is a ladder in the well, first he should remove the ladder and say, 'I must take my son down off the roof, I'll bring it back' or something like that.” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 425:5)

This statement is directly from Jewish Law. What is amazing about the rabbis is how they make statements like this one and then, when confronted with the sheer cruelty and barbarism of it, backtrack to find innumerable ‘exceptions’ and caveats to the rule. Well, if these exceptions were so obvious or important to understanding how Jews are to regard the heretics among them, then why wasn’t it stated plainly in the first place? Why does everything have to first become controversial and then, and only then, do the rabbis bother to ‘explain’ it?

This reminds me of the typical racist, chauvinist, etc. who makes broad, sweeping comments about a particular group and then, when confronted with possible and notable exceptions, begins to waver a little from his original stance. No doubt our racist will continue to believe that he never really changed his mind, only that he admits that some members of his intended bigotry might not be as bad as he proports them to be. Nevertheless, though we have cornered the racist and caught him with his own logic, we still know that he remains a racist bastard.

This is, in fact, what the rabbis do time and time again. They quickly switch ‘halachic’ gears once caught either contradicting themselves or facing the quizzical and sometimes appauled looks of those who happen to read Jewish law and come across these nasty little bits of information. For the rabbis, their game is a game of opposites where they say one thing yet mean another and so on. It becomes very tiring when you start to notice how often that these ‘brilliant’ sages didn’t possess the basic foresight or straightforward understanding to be clear about their own words or the consequences thereof.

The rabbis also remind me of politicians on the campaign trail, making bold, strong, populist assertions and then, once elected, backpedalling from their original promises. Yet, weren’t the rabbis supposed to be better than politicians? So whom were the rabbis trying to impress by calling for vigilantism? What societal problem was cast at their feet by the Jewish masses that they felt it required such extreme measures? Or, like many issues today, were concocted by the rabbis to garner public support?

To be clear, this is what the abovementioned statement really says:

“Listen Jew. If you know anyone among you who doesn’t believe exactly as we do, it is your job to kill them. If the situation permits you to do it violently and in full public view, then by any means, do so. If not, one should wait for the opportunity to be at indirect cause for his death by some clever ruse.”

Freedom of Religion? Nope.

Freedom of Thought? Nope.

Freedom of Expression? Nope.

Right to a Trial? Nope.

Right to Jury Trial? Nope.

Right to Legal Counsel? Nope.

All you get for disagreeing with the rabbis is death at the hands of an angry mob or a cunning vigilante, with the tacit approval of the rabbinical authorities. Now you make think this is crazy and that Torah would never allow it but in many cases, the Torah commands the quick and painful death of any and all dissenters, even those who don’t question Torah or mitzvos! Even their wives and children, such as those of Korach, Dasan, and Aviram were wiped out with their rebellious fathers. The Torah itself offers us prime examples of summary execution of defendants without trial or proper defense.

Torah laws are really military laws. Moshe divided the Jews into military regiments based upon family and tribal lines, most likely to avoid the natural animosities that existed between them from spilling over were they not kept separate. Moshe instituted many militarisitic rules as far as encampments and latrines. Considering that the Jews were on a military quest to conquer Canaan, this makes perfect sense. Yet, along with the militaristic society came militaristic jurisprudence which, even to this day, remains apart and distinct in many ways from common civilian law. In addition, Moshe’s courts were tribunals in the field; convened in a moment’s notice and sentences carried out forthwith.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I am not one who wishes to live under a military justice system, be it Torah or the USMC. As Groucho Marx once said “Military justice is to justice, what military music is to music.” If we are soldiers, and not citizens, then our act of disagreement is not merely an act of a free thinking human being, it is an act of disobedience to a superior, and therefore, considered a highly treasonous offense.

Perhaps the rabbis spoke in theory and then dealt in reality later on when it became a more practical matter. I don’t know. It remains troublesome that these allegedly wise and ingenious sages seemed to have lacked foresight as to the consequences and controversial nature of their words. Their flip-flopping on both principle and detail leads me to never take them at their word. Once you have 'outed' yourself as a bigot, theocrat, fascist, or nationalist, good luck trying to win back my favor, no matter how many excuses or rationales you offer.

Kol Tuv

Thursday, November 16, 2006

עץ חיים היא : A Story About a Lost Friend

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“If you reveal your secrets to the wind you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.” (Kahlil Gibran, 1883 - 1931)

In my early years, we lived next door to an elderly couple. I think Mr. K was a retired accountant, but I cannot be entirely sure. Mrs. K baked cookies and exchanged minor pleasantries with the neighborhood yentas. They were a quiet and not overly social couple, but everyone adored them. Mr. K davened in my father’s shteibel and I think his son was a Rov somewhere in Europe, but I have no idea which country. Mrs. K spent a good deal of time reading, and on occasion would exchange recipes and the latest news of her eyniklach with my bubbe. I don’t remember if they were Poylish or Russish, but their children were all hard-core Misnagdim. If the Ks themselves had any philosophical or religious issues with their chasidishe neighbors, they kept it a very well guarded secret.

The outer appearance of the K’s house was exactly like ours in almost every respect. Most homes in that section of Brooklyn look a lot like dominoes stood close enough alongside each other so that if, one was so inclined, one could level the entire block with a gentle nudge. The one noticeable difference was their backyard. Our yard fell under the relentless dominion of my father; a man predisposed to maximizing every inch of available real estate for something purposeful and hopefully, edible as well. I do miss his garden, with the smell of ripened tomatoes, stalks of dill, fresh peas, and a few varieties of flowers sprouting up in between the rows. Despite all the kvetching and yammering I did when having to perform of the heavy labor, as my father’s arthritis was already very painful for him, I still came to miss those times later on in life. I very much enjoy gardening myself, but I lack the natural expertise for which my father, in his small circle of friends, was well known.

The K’s yard, unlike our own, was quite bare; with its sole discerning feature an overgrown scrub tree that miraculously projected itself sunward through a large split in the crumbling pavement behind their garage. As the tree grew and its trunk expanded, it gradually dislodged more and more of the cement around its base. There were huge chucks of broken concrete that appeared to have been placed around that tree by human hands; perhaps in an attempt to protect it from urinating dogs or passing cars. Since I had never given it much thought back then, I never measured its exact height. When perched upon the highest branch to which I could reach, looking out and over our garage and down into the alleyway behind the street was pretty easy. Though not an overall scenic or even useful view, I nonetheless felt a sense of power in being able to survey the neighborhood from above the street level.

The first instances of my interaction with this tree began at approximately four years of age. I honestly cannot say what I did in or around that tree that first time. If I was anything like other kids, which is highly unlikely, I was probably skipping around aimlessly, picking off the lowest of leaves and then releasing them into the passing breeze, carelessly watching them flutter earthward from my fingertips. I recall other occasions, much later on, when I would take a sefer or a drawing pad and squat under that tree and read for what seemed to be hours on end. As I got a little older and my tuchis a bit more sensitive, I placed a plastic milk crate on the ground beneath it. Eventually as I was able to climb higher up into the tree, I found a good sturdy branch, and with feet dangling, I would read, say tehillim, and sometimes ‘zone out’ while staring out into no place in particular. If I was nowhere else to be found, my bubbe always knew to check for me in the tree.

Other than the occasional stray cat, bird, or curious squirrel, the tree was my exclusive lair. I cannot recall one instance where I came home to find another human occupying my tree. It was my sanctuary. The K’s eyniklach, who must have lived some distance away, seldom visited, and when they did appear ex nihilo, never ventured out into the yard. The Ks never bothered to put up a swing set or jungle gym, so the yard’s nonconformity to modern childhood usefulness was evident. I did invite a few of my chaverim to enjoy the shade or engage in some gratuitous climbing exercise, but there were no takers. I began to imagine that HaShem placed the tree in the “midst of the Garden” just for me and even He did not want anyone else using it.

When I say that the tree served as a sanctuary, it is no exaggeration. That was my personal refuge from my father’s sullenness, my bubbe’s nosiness, and my own intellectual boredom. But, most of all, I was there to escape a graying pall of sadness that engulfed our home when my step-mother was diagnosed with terminal yenne-machalah and spent her last several months of life in a cancer ward. The poetry I wrote for her, when weather and time permitted, was conceived under the low hanging, and serrated leaves of that incredible tree. If I could have those daydreams back now, I could write my entire life away, and even if doing little else, never complete even one of those childhood afternoon’s cerebral meanderings.

Wintertime was a little tough for me because the tree shed its leaves and the naked limbs no longer served to shade and comfort as they had all summer. I was somewhat consoled in the knowledge that springtime was coming again soon and soon enough my precious tree would return to its blossoming green splendor. I remember a teacher telling us that “Trees need to rest, too”, so I was not too broken up about a forced wintertime hiatus in our friendship. As it was, I did not go near the tree on Shabbos or Yom Tov anyway, and as I got older I was sometimes just too busy to get anywhere near it. I never, however, forgot about that tree, even in the dead of winter. I thought the tree had to be cold out there without its mantle of leaves.

Mrs. K was always worried I would fall and break something on their property. Mr. K referred to me once as the “shimpanze”, but never shooed me off. I think he was being paid off in fresh tomatoes from my father’s garden, and didn’t want to disrupt his ‘vegetarian’ good fortune of living next to a compulsive urban farmer. Besides, I was never any trouble. Other than leaving a chumash out in the rain once and failing to retrieve some pages that had fallen from my sketchpad, there were no behavioral or disciplinary issues surrounding my occupation of Mr. K’s scrub tree.

One my early talents, other than writing, was watercolor painting. I never took any classes, nor was I even encouraged, as religious kids know, to become an artist. I was just plain good at it. In fact, my father, who never claimed pride in any accomplishment or success I achieved, framed every single one of those crude paintings. It was the only art on our walls. In the center of our dining room wall hung a watercolor portrait of that tree which, in my estimation, was a real work of love. It is unfortunate that the fire, which took not only my father’s health and happiness, also destroyed those paintings. Though I had long since given up any artistic ambitions, it would have been nice to look at that tree again, even if only through the eyes of an eight-year-old aspiring impressionist.

I clearly remember Mr. K’s levaya, Mrs. K saying goodbye to my Bubbe, and their house going up on the market. Everyone wondered who would move in, but we were fairly sure it wouldn’t be empty for long. As children, we have this naïve sense that good things last forever and I, giving no real thought to the possible demise of my beloved tree, went on with daily life as if nothing had changed. I was still able to visit at my leisure and, having never imagined otherwise, assumed that the new owners of the K residence would not mind one bit if I continued hanging out in their back yard.

When my stepmother o’h passed on, the family had already prepared for the worst-case scenario. We all knew she was sick and becoming sicker by the day with no hope of recovery. We knew there were operations, surgeries, and medications. I knew, just by seeing her that her life was slowly leaving her. As a child, I didn’t process what all of that meant as an adult would know it to imply, and because of that, I may have seemed cooler and more distant from her passing than I would otherwise. I may have been in shock. My father suddenly got much older, and the sympathies of neighbors and family that poured out to us confused me and pushed me further into a desire for solitude. It seemed there was nothing that I could rely upon to always be there for me. Nevertheless, my tree was still there; taller and much leafier than last year, and still willing to tolerate my daily sojourn beneath its branches. That, too, was soon to end.

One Erev Shabbos, when I was probably eleven years old, while on my way home from the bakery, I decided to stop by the tree for a few minutes and maybe to have a cookie or two and ‘hang out’ under my tree. I distinctly remember strolling along with an unconscious, carefree sort of gait; the sort that children use when they aren’t hurried by adults or worried over mundane childhood concerns. I stepped through the K’s gate without a thought, expecting to see my beloved tree as always. However, all that remained was perhaps eight inches of stump and a pile of broken cement, having been pulled back from the trunk to allow easy access for the chainsaw. At first, I really thought I had walked into the wrong yard and I looked around to make sure I knew where I was. To the left were my father’s green beans dangling between the spaces of the chain link fence and the smell of dill carried on the summer breeze. My tree was gone. Just like that.

I cannot remember if was angry, shocked, sad, numb, or all of the above and more. I do very specifically recall wondering why anyone would cut down a tree that never hurt anyone or did not seem to obstruct anyone’s path. Did someone need firewood? What kind of mamzer would do that to my tree? I was also curious as to why my father, whom I thought must have known that someone going to murder this tree, did not protest its violent execution by running out and shouting “Wait! Stop! That is my Shloyme’s tree!” I felt hurt, abandoned, and betrayed. The tree had always been there, it seemed, and it never asked anything of me or objected to my presence. I loved the security the tree offered and now it, like other things I loved, proved as temporary and fleeting as those turned out to be. That sudden change of scenery awakened a deeper sense of insecurity; injury added to the stinging insult of being left unawares. I was the only one who cared about that tree and nobody bothered to ask my opinion! The tree no longer existed and, as far as humankind was concerned, apparently neither did I.

It’s been thirty-six years to date since my tree o’h was cut down, limb by limb, and chipped up into mulch. As I recall, this was among the worst acts of senseless, meaningless violence I have ever witnessed. I haven’t been back to the yard on C Street, nor have I really wondered too much what the new owners replaced my tree with, if anything. I suppose there have been quite a few alterations to the landscaping since then. I moved on and forgot about that tree, my good friend, for a while, but every so often I am reminded of those times and the peace I enjoyed under its branches. Things change and we change along with them, but memories good or bad, are not so bad to cherish.

I still miss that tree. I felt very much alive then. I think Maybe there is still some grieving to do. Maybe I just need another tree.

(In writing, I try to offer some lesson in the hope of bringing a closure to a question or inspire readers to think from a new perspective. There are no such noble intentions here. I could go on about ‘not taking things for granted’ and other redundant platitudes; but that would be overstating what is already glaringly obvious to anyone. This was just a story about a disappointed daydreamer, a scrub tree, and the insecurity that came with being unprepared for inevitable changes.)

Kol Tuv