Monthly Archives: May 26, 2014

We are Where We Think

“When you walk through the city in the morning, what do you think about?”  Alessandro asked his father.

“Many things.”

“Do you think of the city itself?”

“No. I used to, but I’ve had a profession for a number of years, and it has mastered me.  A profession is like a great snake that wraps itself around you.  Once you are enwrapped, you are in a slow fight for the rest of your life, and the lightness of youth leaves you.  You don’t have time, for example, to think about the city even as you are walking through it.”  (Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War, 119)
Helprin’s lament is not only for the time – those countless hours of precious time! – that we invest in our careers.  He is concerned, also, about the way our professions, and the anxieties and stress that accompany them, come to dominate our thoughts.  For when our thoughts are preoccupied by to-do lists that are never completed, we no longer notice the sights and sounds that surround us.

Nachmanides writes that “a person exists where his thoughts are.” (Ramban, Iggeret HaKodesh, ch. 5).  This truism, though oft repeated, is far from obvious.  Suppose a person lives in London, but thinks about New York.  If you would interrupt his reverie about the city that never sleeps, and ask him – “where have you been for the last few minutes?” – he would tell you, almost certainly, that he has been in London, and was ‘only thinking’ of New York. His assumption is that, in reality, he is actuallyin London, and that his thoughts of New York were not as real.

But this attitude, according to Rabbi Itamar Schwartz, assigns too much importance to […]

By |May 26, 2014|

Violent Affection: Learning to Live with our In-laws


“It’s very much to be wished that some mothers would leave their daughters alone after marriage, and not be so violently affectionate.  They seem to think the only return that can be made them for bringing an unfortunate young woman into the world – as if she asked to be brought, or wanted to come! – is full liberty to worry her out of it again…”  (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield)

The problem of overbearing in-laws, it seems, is not new to history.  Newly married couples, intent on developing their own relationship, are bound to resent the ‘violent affection’ of their spouse’s parents; the tension is natural.

Solomon Maimon, the colorful 18th century Jewish heretic and Kantian philosopher, had a particularly painful relationship with his mother in law.  According to the customs of the day, Maimon was only eleven years old when he married; he was still a child.  Immediately following the wedding, he and his child bride moved in with her mother, who had agreed to support the young couple for a designated period of time – a practice known as kest, which continued well into the 20th century (and which, to the chagrin of many hard working in-laws, continues in many Orthodox communities to this day).

Maimon describes the experience of living with his mother in law:  “I stood, however, not only under the slipper of my wife, but what was very much worse under the lash of my mother-in-law. Nothing of all that she had promised was fulfilled… Of the six years board which she had promised me I enjoyed scarcely half a years, and this amid constant brawls and squabbles. She even, trusting to my youth and want of spirit, ventured now and then […]

By |May 19, 2014|

Swimming Upstream

Why did the Roman Empire fall?  Edward Gibbon, author of the classic 18th century Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, offers a fascinating theory. Although cultured Romans in the era of Hadrian and the Antonines greatly valued learning, literature and science, “this age of indolence passed away without having produced a single writer of original genius… The authority of Plato and Aristotle, of Zeno and Epicurus, still reigned in the schools; and their systems, transmitted with blind deference from one generation of disciples to another, precluded every generous attempt to exercise the powers, or enlarge the limits, of the human mind…. This diminutive stature of mankind… was daily sinking below the old standard, and the Roman world was indeed people by a race of pygmies; when the fierce giants of the north broke in, and mended the puny breed.” (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter III)

According to Gibbon, Roman thinkers were unable to respond to the profound philosophical and theological crises of their times.  A new era brought with it new challenges; but the leadership and intelligentsia was not equal to the task.  They applied old answers to new questions, unable to break free from the shadow of the ancient Greek philosophers and to think critically for themselves.  Their intellectual smallness led to an internal crumbling of the Roman ideal, weakening the spirit of the people and making Rome an easy target for the barbarians to the north.

Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Piacetzner Rebbe, described public opinion and “settled truths” as a “torrent river surging forth, sweeping with it all that lies in its path, penetrating into deep recesses and washing away all buried things.”  Imperceptibly, common beliefs shape […]

By |May 12, 2014|

Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall…

“Thrift and prudence may, with luck, make one wealthy.  Thoughtfulness and learning may, with even more luck, make one wise.  But there stands the body to mock both wealth and wisdom and every other kind of accumulation.  The body exists to demonstrate, if demonstration is needed, that progress has its limitations.  ‘Every day I get better and better’ is a notion that the body refutes.  Beyond a certain point one ceases to grow stronger, more beautiful, more desirable.  Neither all the king’s personal trainers nor all the king’s cosmetic surgeons can put any of us together again.  The body reminds us that we are in the swim only for a short, however glorious, while.  Then, no matter what one’s station in life, or what one’s natural endowments, the whistle blows and it’s everybody but everybody out of the pool, and that includes you – which is to say me – Narcissus, baby.”  (Joseph Epstein, Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays, 20)

Hair begins to thin, and the grey strands come in bunches.  Aches and pains start to crop up in parts of the body you never paid attention to before.  And it takes twice as much effort to lose five pounds as it used to.  As Epstein writes, once we pass a certain age, we are constantly confronted with the (hopefully) long and slow decline of our bodies.  Every morning and evening, when we look in the mirror while we brush our teeth, we are reminded of our nagging imperfections.  The decline of our bodies is a constant reminder that our stay here on earth is a temporary one.

“And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… God formed man out […]

By |May 7, 2014|