Monthly Archives: November 25, 2013

Pure Oil & Pure Spaces

“For myself I found that the occupation of a day-laborer was the most independent of any… The laborer’s day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labor; but his employer, who speculates from month to month, has no respite from one end of the year to the other.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond)

First published in 1854, Thoreau’s classic Walden Pond relates its author’s famous experiment in simple living.  Thoreau hoped to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”; and so he eschewed all means of earning a livelihood which would impinge upon his thoughts and leisure time.  To achieve his goal, Thoreau worked as a simple laborer, avoiding the stress that would inevitably accompany more lucrative employment.

As modern orthodox Jews, we generally do not have Thoreau’s luxury of choosing “nine to five” jobs.  The costs of living in our community – including day school, summer camp, and all of the extra expenses that are a part of Jewish living – demand that we pursue careers that follow us home from work.  And so, like so many other Americans, we “relax” on our living room couches with our laptops.  Our personal spaces are transformed into “multipurpose” rooms, in which every space in our home is made to accommodate our work; no room is left free from the shackles of the office.  We are day laborers, certainly; but we are also evening laborers and weekend laborers, as well.

Is there any way out?  Have we any hope of freeing ourselves from the constant pressures of work?

Rabbi Yirmiyah stated: “Making use of the light of a Chanukah candle is […]

By |November 25, 2013|

One of These Days

“One of these days, I’m gonna sit down and write a long letter, to all the good friends I’ve known…” (Neil Young, One of these Days, 1992).

When Neil Young wrote these lyrics in the early 1990s, he expressed a yearning that so many of us have experienced as well.  If only we could find the time, or, more accurately, the frame of mind, to properly sit down with a pen and paper and express our thoughts and feelings to those we care about most.

Neil Young could never have imagined that, only a few years later, his song would be hopelessly out of date.  With the arrival of email in the mid-1990s (remember trying to dial up to America Online?), and the more recent explosion of text messaging and IMing, letter writing has very quickly become passé.  Why send a letter, when an email is both free and instantaneous?

The disappearance of letter writing presents problems for historians, who have long relied on private letters to reveal the inner lives of famous people.  But more importantly, for all of us, the loss of letter writing deprives us of an opportunity to reflect.  As Simon Garfield writes, “Letters, flush with content amassed over days or weeks, may reflect a slower cerebral whirring, a gestation of intelligence and reasoning far from the instant responses demanded by email.”  An email is a “hybrid between a letter and a phone call;” it is used more for off the cuff conversation than as a medium for in depth reflection. (The Lost Art of Letter-Writing, Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2013)

As we have grown accustomed to the immediacy of writing emails, the thought of spending a significant amount of time writing a […]

By |November 19, 2013|

Outsourcing Memory

Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, is reputed to have responded to the invention of the stylus, which made writing possible, with no small amount of displeasure: “This discovery… will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing…” (Plato, citing Socrates, in The Phaedrus, 370 BCE)

If Socrates feared the impact of writing upon the human mind’s capacity to memorize, one can only imagine his horror at the effects of the internet and the digital age.  We live at a time when memorization has become increasingly passé.  Although we still need memory for some day to day functions – like remembering where we left our car keys – many other similar tasks have been outsourced to technology (in the age of smart phones, does anybody memorize phone numbers anymore?).  With each technological innovation, we use our memories less frequently, increasingly outsourcing this difficult task to technology.  Why memorize historical facts, if you can google the information from your iPhone, and find the information you seek within seconds?

Although many segments of the Jewish community have embraced the opportunities inherent in technology, on a fundamental level, Jewish thinking would appear to be more in line with Socrates.  Jewish tradition clearly distinguishes between the Bible, which is the “Written Torah,” and the vast corpus of Jewish learning that is known as the “Oral Torah.”  The Oral Torah is meant to […]

By |November 11, 2013|

The Vanity of the Selfless

A certain learned and pious Jew had the custom to fast frequently and secretly wear sackcloth underneath his clothes.  One day, he went to visit a great Rabbi, and wished to let the Rabbi know about his piety, without explicitly telling him about his pious practices.  And so, just before he entered the Rabbi’s room, he opened his shirt ever so slightly, so that the sack cloth underneath would be visible if the Rabbi looked carefully.  The Rabbi looked at him for a while and then said, “How clever he is! How clever he is!”  He repeated this several times until the pious man finally blurted out, “Who is so clever?!”  The Rabbi answered, “The Yetzer Hara, who took a man such as yourself and put him into a sack!”  It is possible to live a life of great piety and humility, and yet be doing so entirely for the sake of one’s ego.Eric Hoffer, a 20th century American moral and social philosopher, explains that those who perform great acts of kindness and seek to live a life of humble selflessness are often motivated by extraordinary vanity:The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft.  What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life.  Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless.  There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centeredness for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem.  The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. (The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, 14)False humility is the Yetzer Hara […]

By |November 4, 2013|