News of the World

There’s a subreddit called “Uplifting News” that annoys me. It’s supposed to be an escape from the humdrum litany of murders, wars, etc. that is the news cycle; “There are still good, honest, compassionate people in this world and this is a place to share their stories,” says its description.

Have some headlines from the front page on July 4, 2014:

9 yo forgoes presents for his birthday, asks for dogs to be saved from kill shelters instead

Starbucks Praises Barista Who Defended Breastfeeding Mom

16-year-old with 3 college degrees gets perfect SAT score

US Navy gets its first four-star female admiral

Okay, I get it. Great things are happening to some people, and other people are doing great things. It’s not uplifting, though, because it doesn’t deal with the source of the sadness. I doubt anyone rational listening to the evening news ever thought, “Wow, everyone on planet earth is either suffering or causing others to suffer.” In fact, the suffering is newsworthy precisely because it’s different and new, a bright light illuminating the grey, benign mediocrity in which, thank G-d, most of us get to live.

I am downcast (assuming, for a moment, that I’m not a masochist looking for misery) because good news happens to exist, and in an ideal world, good news must exist.

Great things only exist in some ways and from some perspectives. The nine-year-old is kind, but not necessarily all dogs should be saved from kill shelters, and one wonders if forgoing one’s own gifts at such an age is even healthy and what his motivations are. Starbucks praised behavior that is controversial and whose righteousness is up for debate; the sixteen-year-old’s smarts are good only for him until put to some altruistic use; people are happy that the navy has four-star admirals, and happy that it has a female one, but generally not both. If the news meets some arbitrary standard or perspective, it inspires us. It can just as easily not meet that standard, leaving us just as cynical as before.

Suppose you’ve never seen or heard of a triangle, and I show you some examples of all different sizes, angles, colors, and materials. The more examples you see, the more you’re certain that triangles have three sides. But you can’t know for sure. Perhaps what I’m showing you are atypical triangles, a particular subset that happen to all have three sides, but the next triangle in the series will have four sides. It is only when you decide from the beginning that “all shapes I’ll see that have three sides I’ll call triangles” that a triangle must, by definition, have three sides. Without this a priori determination, the most you can ever say is “all triangles I have seen have three sides.” This is much what science says about all physical realities, even incredibly consistent ones like gravity, e.g. “all unsupported objects I’ve seen around here fall toward the earth, and not away from it.” This is consistent enough to be relied upon, but never makes the leap to becoming a must, a Truth (perhaps all we are experiencing is an incredibly long run in a random process, like getting a hundred heads in a row when flipping a coin, especially since we’re prone to underestimating how common long runs are). It seems the world is not a good place because we see good things happen. If you look up “news” in the dictionary, the definition doesn’t say “good.”

By the way, it’s not that some bad news ruins whatever good we find. Even if all headlines were uplifting headlines, I suspect we wouldn’t be happy, for the reason that all human attempts at utopia end in disaster and our representations of a peaceful, happy world (e.g. Disney World) come off as sort of creepy. You don’t get mugged in the street in the Disney world, but you do feel trapped, because you have a potential for selfishness and evil, a potential unmoved by bright colors that festers under the watchful eyes of park security, enforcers of an inhuman order.

No, until it must be good, it isn’t. Until we must be righteous, we aren’t. The next piece of news could always be bad, and if it isn’t, we might feel driven to make it so. Just as one who says a triangle has four sides is a madman, so must be he who says there is evil in the world. We don’t just need more good things to happen; we need to see everything differently.

Tanya, over two hundred years old, says we need to be happy. Or, more accurately, that depression is evil, and one ought to embrace its alternatives, joy and something called merirus (lit. bitterness). Depression is lethargy, whereas joy and bitterness are mirror images, positive and negative energy fueling improvement with hope or regret.

The author’s descendent and successor says that merirus is not for our generation, and that we must focus only on joy and the positive. It’s not, G-d forbid, that Tanya’s advice is less true now; we have changed. When men were men, contrition was sobering and drove one to the right path. Today, remorse is more likely to build and build until it drowns us in fear and self-absorption.

The Rebbe could have stopped there, and left us with another uplifting headline – Jewish Leader: “Life To Be Lived Focusing On Positive Future” – and the departure from merirus would based on non-uplifting technicality, i.e. we happen to be weaker than previous generations; another piece of surface-level good news generated at random.

But the Rebbe doesn’t stop at the first reason. In the system by which the seven millennia of human existence correspond to the spiritual rhythms of the seven-day week, we live in Friday afternoon, a time to prepare for the cosmic Shabbos, the coming of Moshiach; traditionally, the time for stock-taking and regret is Thursday night, as far into the week as possible without interrupting Friday’s royal preparations. Since we live after Thursday, so close to the time of redemption, we ought to prepare for the future, to taste of it by living joyously in the present. Because when that day comes, the world will express only G-dliness, true perfection, and death will be swallowed up forever.

In other words, the Rebbe defines the triangle from the get-go. What is a world? A perfect place, a place without evil. That is the Truth, as absolute as the infinite G-d it reflects. And since our knowledge of G-d and His plan allows us this a priori definition of reality, the uplifting news can actually serve its purpose; every three-sided triangle aligns with what we know to be true.

The headlines of /r/UpliftingNews are not random breaks in a fierce story; they are the true intention of the Storyteller finally coming through to his audience because they must, because that is the point of all His trillions of words. The child’s altruism, the company’s praise, the teen’s brilliance, and the navy’s appointment pierce the illusion of randomness and technicality: in the world’s perfect state, people will be selfless, empathetic, and brilliant; femininity, with its greater inherent spirituality, will supplant masculinity as the main mode of existence.

All these things were recorded as the true definition of our world thousands of years ago. Pick up a holy book, and read all about it.

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0

The Good – Chapter 2 – “Lessons”

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

The young graduate student stood in a ray of light at the front of the lecture hall, motes of dust eddying around him. He hadn’t said a word since he entered minutes earlier. Two dozen undergrads sat in a rough semicircle, some with pens poised over writing pads, others reviewing their reading assignment. The makeshift professor, about thirty years old, wore grey vest and trousers (not pants) somewhere between khaki and squash green. He was the only one  in the room with skin darker than paper. He had never taught a class before.

Malcolm Worthy took a plunging breath, looked up at the young, white faces, and began. “You have all at this point met Socrates, I trust. You have also met Euthyphro of Prospalta, a seer of ancient Athens. This brings us to the famous Dilemma. Who wants to summarize it for the class?” Several arms shot into the air. “Yes.” He nodded at a young man.

The student lowered his hand and said,  “The question is whether G-d loves piety because it’s pious, or whether piety is pious because G-d loves it.”

Professor Worthy stared at the student like he was a suspicious green fleck on a loaf of bread. “Where are you from?”

The blonde, square-jawed kid blinked in surprise. “Rhode Island, sir.”

“A veritable wasp hive,” boomed the professor as he rested his elbows on his lectern. “I assume that paganism is dead in Providence.”

“Sorry?”

“There aren’t many polytheists there. No druids or shamans?”

“No-”

“No witches or gurus?”

“I don’t-”

“So I think that when you phrase a question shared by Socrates and Euthyphro, a prophet of the ancient Greek religion, as a question about G-d, you’re involving your own experience with priests and pews in Newport in a philosophical question that has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Am I correct, Chadwick?”

“My name is Lesley, sir,” said the student, his face drained of blood.

“Irrelevant,” said the professor. Lesley fell silent. “The original Dilemma involved what the gods, that’s gods plural, desired unanimously. But since you brought it up,” said Malcolm, eyeing the New Englander with kindness. “The Euthyphro Dilemma, in Lesley’s adapted form, is a fundamental issue for monotheists as well, and has earned the attention of some of history’s greatest minds. Now, let’s see if we can approach the underlying challenges…let’s split the room. Divide. Those who think piety is absolute, sit to my,” he thought for a moment, “left. Those who think G-d is absolute, to my right.” There was a general shuffling of papers and scraping of seats as the students rearranged themselves into two surprisingly equal groups.

“Let’s see who’s open to some edification,” said the professor. Pampered idiots, he thought.

 

 

“I hate heels,” said Natalie into the phone cradled against her shoulder as she pulled on leather pumps. She watched the store’s other patrons, a mother and daughter, pick through a kids’ sneakers section awash in pink plastic. Natalie’s own mother taught her early in life that style and comfort were not, in general, exclusive. Except in high heels.

“Must be tough being the female,” said the phone in Roger’s voice, sarcasm intact. “Paid to fly around the world, eat in the finest restaurants, and speak sweetly to powerful men.” As always, she could hear the clacking of a keyboard in the background.

“Not always sweetly,” she said absently and stood up. She grimaced in the precarious footwear but did not lose her balance.

“I yet again dive the dumpsters of humanity while you shop in boutiques,” complained the hacker, last syllables crackling with contempt.

“One hundred dollars’ worth of petty cash says you have never shopped a boutique in your life.”

“Nat’!” said Roger. “You ought to know it’s the principle of the thing!”

“‘Principle of the thing’ sets my ego detector on edge,” she offered. Should have taken up hacking, she thought. Roger gets to work barefoot.

“You don’t believe in principles now?” he asked. He loved to dance in for a conversational jab and pirouette to a new topic before she could pin him. “I thought you work for the Good of mankind-”

“Hey,” she hissed. “You shouldn’t say that, even on a secure line.”

“It’s way more suspicious than the angry whispering,” he said, punctuating with a vicious strike to his Enter key.

“If I had no principles, would I subject myself to ancient Chinese foot binding?”

“People torture themselves all the time, no principles required,” said Roger. “Or maybe you haven’t run into any self-loathing. Who could hate himself in a three-thousand-dollar suit?”

“You could have nice clothes, you know,” said Natalie. “All you have to do is ask.”

These people ask,” spat Roger. “You can’t spend five minutes in a hacker chat without twelve high-school kids asking how to steal. And when I ridicule them they try to cover up their fearful leeching with bad humor.”

Natalie rolled her eyes as she left the shoe department. “You know that you’re a high-school kid in a hacker chat room, right?”

“Yeah, but I’m not afraid.”

“He’d be happy to get you some nice clothes. You wouldn’t be stealing. A friend can still give a friend a gift, can’t they?” She rifled through power blouses. She needed something that said ‘I can destroy you.’ Classily.

“Friends don’t let friends take things for free.”

“Had a lot of friends, have you?”

All she heard was typing, a pleasant rhythm to her ears.

 

 

“You think,” said the professor, nose-to-nose with Lesley, eyes glinting, “that if I murdered you right now, it would be wrong only because an omnipotent being said so?”

Logically, the student knew that the proposed murder was merely a rhetorical device. Logically. “If that being created the world, He gets to make the rules, right?” said Lesley.

Malcolm rounded on the students behind his back. “Why is he wrong?”

“He’s wrong because if he’s right, there’s no such thing as objective morality,” drawled a woman with carrot-colored hair and angular glasses.

“No,” said the professor. “He’s saying that the desires of an absolute being determine absolute morality. It doesn’t get more absolute than that. Now, if-”

“It’s a self-contradictory position,” said the woman.

Malcolm took a breath to calm his nerves. “What’s your name?”

“Amanda.”

“From where?”

“Jackson, Mississippi, professor.” Malcolm heard some man snickering behind his back, and Amanda shot a look over his shoulder that could pierce bulkheads. “Is my birthplace relevant?” she asked.

He stared at her, face unreadable and heart soaring, and said, “No. I’m sorry. You were interrupting?”

“I was, before I was interrupted,” she said with a coy smirk. “His position is contradictory. If you don’t believe in a piety above G-d, then there’s no reason to serve Him in the first place.”

“Go on.”

“There can be no worth in choosing to obey G-d’s commands if the only possible motivations to do so aren’t pious. If you have righteousness and sin before you, there is no compelling reason to choose one over the other. You’d have to already have chosen righteousness to choose righteousness, and that’s impossible.”

“Lesley?” Malcolm called out. “Any thoughts?”

“No, sir,” he said, puzzled.

“Really? Well, how about we tell her this: If there is morality without G-d, then G-d is limited, beholden to a deity of his own, and isn’t G-d at all, is he?”

“Not a problem,” said Amanda. “I don’t believe in Him anyway.”

“But do you believe in man?” His eyes fixed on hers. Green, he thought.

“In woman, at least,” she said.

“Fair enough. So either you think that there is some kind of true morality divorced from a deity, or you think that there is no absolute morality and man – sorry, woman – must decide for herself what is right. If you claim the former, you have to explain how you are privy to this secret information; the latter, you don’t really believe in right and wrong at all.”

“What do you believe, professor?” asked Amanda.

“I believe that if you wanted easy answers, you should have stayed in Jackson,” he said as he stepped away from his students toward his desk, where his briefcase waited, lunch within. “Read the next hundred pages, for next time,” he said to the class as they began to filter out.

Amanda smiled to herself as she stepped into the California sunshine.

 

 

“Mister?” repeated the boy. He was about to punch his sister for his ball when the smelly old man said they shouldn’t fight with each other. Normally, an adult’s words wouldn’t earn Cody’s attention, but the man’s words reminded the eight-year-old of his father’s, kind and amused. Weird. Even weirder, he looked like a homeless guy, but he wasn’t on the street. He had a dirty plastic chair and sat next to an ATM in the little store and was, like, a million years old. When Cody asked why he shouldn’t fight with Dana, the old man got the same look in his eye Cody’s father got when he talked about the army, and didn’t say anything for a while. “Are you okay?” he asked. He took a cautious step closer to the ATM and tried not to breathe the miasmic hobo air.

The man jolted like he just woke up, and smiled. Cody stepped back. “Where are you parents?” he asked.

“My father’s next door,” said Cody.

“Would he want you to fight with your sister?”

“No, but she took my ball!”

“What’s more important? A happy dad or a ball?”

The kid stared.

“Your father loves you. You should try to make him happy.”

“He’s not here,” said Cody. Homeless and dumb? “And she took my ball. It’s mine.”

“Yeah, but she thinks-” he paused, and scratched at his ragged hair. “You know what? You shouldn’t punch your sister because it’s wrong to punch your sister.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that?” asked Cody. He wandered off to browse the toy section.

Malcolm shook his head, bemused.

 

 

“You’d hope congressmen would be smarter,” said Roger into his headset as he scanned stolen credit card offers online.

“He was just trying to help. We both know he’s not the problem. He’s-”

“The victim of a system?” asked Roger gaily. It was an invitation to reopen an old argument of theirs. If she picked up the gauntlet it was all over; a conversation of at least four hours terminated by mutual declarations of hatred and furious hanging up was sure to follow. Roger desperately wanted it.

He could practically hear her eyes lock with determination as she said, “Yes, he-”

The sound of a rude pipe bursting roared from her phone so loudly she had to hold it away from her ear. She brought it back in time to hear “-we don’t believe in systems!”

“Now, now,” she said, as she finally rang up her new purchases, “there are some types of what could be called systems that we certainly-”

“Nat’,” he said, quiet, deflated. “I can’t believe it…someone’s…”

“What?” she asked, as her chest dropped into her stomach. She never heard Roger sound so scared. “What’s happening? Are you alright?”

“Gotta go,” she heard, followed by the tone of an empty line.

Roger recoiled from his laptop screen, rolling halfway across the room on his chair as if a snake lay on his desk. His IRC window was open, and on its bottom line, the toxic words:

EvilHunter: Tell me about the Good, Roger.”

 

 

“You can trust me, Willie,” said Mr. Bell, school counselor, as he shut the door to his office. “Want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

“Am I in trouble?”

“No, but, honestly, that’s kind of why your teachers are worried about you. You’re not paying attention in class, but you’re not goofing around with your friends, either. They think you might have something on your mind. It’s my job to check that you’re okay, man.” Mr. Bell sat on the edge of his desk and fiddled with a Rubik’s cube. The teacher was in his early thirties and wore a bright purple shirt, dark tie, and black jeans. He and Willie had never spoken before.

“How does it work? I have confidentiality and stuff, right?”

“And stuff,” nodded the teacher. “As long as no one’s gonna get hurt, including you.”

“It’s nothing serious, Mr. Bell, it’s just-”

“Joe.”

“Okay,” said Willie. “Have you ever met anyone who’s…different?”

“Different how?”

“See, that’s the thing. I don’t really know. He just was.”

“Well, tell me about it.”

“I was in a convenience store a couple of days ago, after school. Buyin’ Doritos.” Mr. Bell’s eyebrows rose infinitesimally, but he said nothing. “There’s this homeless guy who’s been staying there, and he…talked to me.” Willie had been about to say ‘knew my name,’ but an instinctive distrust of teachers from deep in his brain censored the detail. Mr. Bell waited. “He said that no one decides for me. That was the main thing, I think; I can’t remember all the parts. But he said that no one is responsible for me except for me. Not economics and not politics, he said, but I don’t know what he meant. He was so…different, somehow.”

Mr. Bell rested back on his palms and glanced at Willie’s file from the corner of his eye. “Is your mother okay?” asked the teacher.

“She’s alright,” said Willie.

“I’m glad to hear that,” said the teacher. Though he knew they would discuss all sorts of things over the next half hour, Joseph Bell already yearned for the moment when the student would leave his office and he could search online for a list of local convenience stores.

Again

I don’t even really like my job. It’s tedious and annoying. I live and work in a Jewish academy in the middle of nowhere (it used to be a monastery), and my job is to record exactly who is in the study hall when learning is in session. The students range from seventeen to twenty and from immature to not-quite-mature.

So why am I in so much pain, leaving?

Life itself is the greatest of all pleasures. While it’s unchallenged, we don’t even realize we enjoy it. But try to take someone’s life away…

 

They’re sitting at a picnic table near the parking lot, this afternoon. One guy’s a free spirit, so free he resents the concept of punctuality and punctuality’s patron saint (at least in northern New Jersey), me. Another is quiet; we’ve probably shared three scattered words since the year began. One is studious, a perfect student, never late, too perfect for antics. There’s a guy who’s just “one of the guys,” the guys I was never part of.

I never disliked them, or liked them either. They were simply the faces (so many faces) who’d pass by in the hall, who’d eat in the lunch room, who’d play Frisbee or soccer during lunch breaks. We’d complain together constantly – there was a lot to complain about. Terrible school, badly run. The food – isn’t. Can you believe who’s in trouble? And for what? Why can’t they see what the problem actually is? We can’t wait to just get out of here…

I sit watching these guys at the table and, out of nowhere, I feel it. It’s the end of a good novel or TV show. It’s the open lockers and papers everywhere on a summer afternoon in high school. It’s the buses lined up faithfully on the last day of camp. And today, it’s the luggage rolling down the passage outside my room and the loaned books returned to my shelf by people who I realize I love, not because of anything they did but because they were there for a time, a part of my life, another long day washed under the bridge.

It’s not even the end of the year; they’re leaving for the holiday of Shavuos, the day we received G-d’s Torah on Mount Sinai. But after that it’s just two weeks, and then no matter what I do or where I go, it will be after, beyond, the rest.

I will not return to my home of three years. I’m not truly happy here, not anymore. I can accomplish things elsewhere and I need change and there’s a whole life to live outside these four walls, but this afternoon, when they were on those benches, I wanted to keep Shavuos in place and cling to this mediocrity with iron fingers, because it’s my mediocrity and I live here and not again, not again, not again. Not the parting, the endless beyond, the unbearable future without them and these hallways painted hospital white and the deer in the woods and late night 7-11 runs and the guy at the gas station whose stomach hangs out of his T-shirt and the boiled eggs and my mail in the back office and the long winters. Why must I do this again? Why do I have to taste the warming wind, watch these rooms drain of people, blood from a limb, and then gather my things and move once more?

I sometimes think that G-d is the pack you put on your shoulders as you must, again, walk down the road.

 

Van from my phone; Van Gogh from Wikipedia.

Deus Ex Machina

Statements, in general, are dangerous. A statement claims and at once denies; if the sky is blue it cannot be green. When the statement in question is susceptible to disproof, yet is essential to a worldview that would not survive its falsification, only a brave man or a foolish one would dare to speak. The dinosaur issue, for example, is arguably non-essential to Judaism. The Torah has an opinion on the matter (as with all matters) but the age of the world and the conditions of its existence in the distant past are not central tenets of our religion; on the contrary, there are many orthodox Jews who for whatever reason do not see a contradiction between Torah’s six-day creation and science’s billions-of-years formation. Equally as harmless are a priori axiomatic assertions, such as G-d’s existence; there is (practically) no way to put the lie to it and thus those of us who otherwise just eat popcorn and watch reruns of The Office may proclaim it loudly and without fear. The purpose of mankind, on the other hand, is a different pot of cholent. Torah, and (as we’ll see) specifically Chassidic teachings, takes a gamble and decrees why we’re here. Is it right, even in unfamiliar times?

On the agenda: Humans make gods in their image. It’s all over fiction, from Suarez’s Daemon novels to popular TV shows like Person of Interest. A genius billionaire creates a computer/software that can see/manipulate/do anything, and it proceeds to see/manipulate/do just that. The implications are terrifying; Suarez’s intelligent program adapts itself to news stories it reads on the Internet, runs weapon factories, and enslaves humans by force. To gain loyalty it reads brainwaves with MRIs, detects the basest desires of its followers, and provides them. In PoI, the machine predicts crimes before they take place, has access to every security camera in the world, and communicates through a Delphi-style avatar named Root who openly worships “her” as a deity.

While our stories scout over the horizon, computing power continues to grow next door. Moore’s law says that computer processing speed doubles roughly every year; the Singularity, a kind of technopocalypse when artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, may only be fifteen to thirty years away. It may also not happen at all; it’s hard to take any predictions of futuristic radical upheavals too seriously while I still don’t have my jetpack. Interesting nevertheless is Ray Kurzweil’s characterization of that future time as a move away from the biological and toward the spiritual as the mind is uploaded from the confines of the body.

Now the problem: If in fifty years’ time humanity is no longer the dominant life form on this planet and we exist only as pawns of superintelligent Google bots, what will remain of our central role in the creation, of our unique ability to carry out G-d’s will? It is clear that, say, a caterpillar cannot fulfill G-d’s commandments, since it is an unintelligent creature that cannot understand those commands and desires as they have been expressed to humans. They aren’t smart enough for free will. Is it possible that in the near future there will be robots smarter than any human? Why have Jews if a robot can learn the entire Torah in an instant with an infallible memory, weigh the different sides of a halachic question using fuzzy logic, be bothered by the plight of the Jewish poor, and write novel, extensively annotated responsa on the topic?

In case this is all too abstract or ridiculous, consider that in a way we already suffer from this existential threat all the time. You arrive at a new job and a coworker is…perfect. He can do everything you can do and everything your friends can do, and he’s happier doing it. You know that he must have terrible taste in music and crippling self-absorption and dead people in his basement but it turns out he has deep original insight into your favorite band, feeds the hungry in his spare time, and built an indoor waterfall in his basement with his bare hands during breaks from cooking chicken soup for his ailing aunt whom he supports singlehandedly. It can make you wonder what, if anything, you bring to the world other than your oh-so-special brand of mediocrity.

Torah gives several reasons why we’re here. The answers vary in content and their effect on the human experience. One source it says the world is here that He may be known. Another says the world exists to actualize His potential, for a potential is incomplete without expression. A third place says G-d created heaven and earth so that he may eventually express himself fully in the reality furthest removed from his truth, and Chassidus champions this answer over all others, for reasons simple to any student of Kabbalah.

Our world is not the only one G-d created. There are spiritual realities, populated by spiritual beings. There are an infinite number of angels (Chassidus recognizes this as a logical contradiction that only omnipotence could tolerate), for example, spiritual beings who exist only to serve their Creator, conduits for an ever-falling cascade of G-dly energy. Since there are other worlds, and assuming that G-d does nothing without purpose (a safe assumption only because that’s what He himself tells us through his Torah), it stands to reason that humans exist because we can do something that, say, angels, cannot. If the purpose of creation is that G-d may be known, there is no reason for a human to exist; we cannot know Him like the lowest angel knows him and certainly not as he is known in Atzilus, highest of spiritual creations. It also seems odd that with all that infinite spirituality up there the expression of His potential should be in the physical, philosophically low, as if until Einstein teaches second grade math he is not a genius.

No, G-d likes mediocrity.

In other words: If you think G-d created anything for the reason I create a bowl of cereal & milk, i.e. it adds something to His life, you’re living in delusion. There is no “adding” to G-d. It’s in his job description. He is absolute, everything else is conditional. He is real, and everything else is pathetically fake. He doesn’t need; (unless he chooses to, in which case) He wants. What does He want? Something new. To Him, everything is Him; he wants “not Him.” He creates the material, stuff so dumb its existence at face value demands no explanation or antecedent, stuff that takes up space and therefore exists on technicality. Then, he creates the impossible, little reproductions of himself that operate autonomously, which would be impossible for any spiritual being aware that to fight the divine will is to commit suicide. What if, He wonders, these little things actually chose to be G-dly even though they didn’t have to? Who ever heard of such a thing?

Our excellence doesn’t make us interesting. Our choices in the face of adversity make us interesting. And human adversity is miraculously fine-tuned: constant, enough to hurt, generally not too much to destroy. Personal adversity is the same, a divine constant, tailor-made for the individual and his abilities. “According to the camel is the load.”

No matter how stupid we feel compared to the guy at work or the computer on our desk, we are created with our own challenges and limitations and our own part of this “not Him” to fix. We can’t know anyone else’s challenges. We don’t have to be supermen; we don’t have to be the best. We only have to be the best us.

I’ll take my jetpack now.

Image of BRAAAIIIINS from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

Control

Shabbos ended three hours earlier but none of us had changed out of our sweaty slacks. My two companions, one a local, the other a visitor like me, wanted to see some sights in the town. I came with. We drove down the road parallel to the sea with the windows rolled down and the cool salt-sprinkled air soothed our every ache.

We made a few stops. First was the dramatic sea wall, where the breakers offered themselves up in spraying plumes and the sweep of the bay and arched sky dwarfed us. We clambered, dress shoes slipping, onto a rocky promontory that jutted from a tiny peninsula of huge houses on million-dollar acres, and felt like a coin in the Atlantic’s palm, unity just a wave away. Eventually we wandered a green park beside a harbor still clear of its summer yachts and cracked jokes about the two high school kids standing and smoking pot near the bathrooms instead of sitting on a bench by the water as G-d intended.

The wind shifted, warm and cool and warm again, and the conversation deepened. In the moon’s wavering reflection, one friend found freedom from the stress and worry of recent days. The other friend shared his desire to build a house there on the water’s edge, to possess the scene forever.  But, he mused, it was a false wish. We mustn’t live in the future and miss our current experience. That park and that night were ours for free, and a lifetime of work to “earn” it, constantly living in the future, would leave us in our ocean-view mansions hungering for somewhere else, and so on until death, unsatisfied.

It struck me that their feelings meshed with mine.

All things within our experience were born, and to nothing they must return. “Nothing gold can stay,” says the poet. It is inescapable, and, especially to my myth-rattled mind, sad. The problem: Humanity as a whole may last ‘till the end of the story, the stars may watch forever from their midnight balcony, but eternity is beyond the individual’s grasp.

It came to me all at once:

One friend lives with a business mindset and he felt, not wrongly, that he must control his world, must manipulate the flotsam and jetsam of material existence (e.g. Starbucks, Gmail, checkbooks, TAG watches, sheitels) into a structure that will protect him and his family and allow them to thrive in the adverse conditions known euphemistically in Chassidic parlance as “Olam HaZeh” (“This World”).  The other friend wanted to own the waterside, to put it behind his own walls, to conquer it. I was depressed by my finitude in the face of G-d’s vast creation.

We’re all addicts.

At first glance, we might think that an addict is controlled by a substance or behavior, that an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol problem. In truth, an alcoholic is someone with an alcohol solution. Alcohol is the alcoholic’s way of controlling his or her life, or in other words, of being his or her own G-d. An addict is a remarkable spiritually sensitive person who, to deal with a painful world, turns to a behavior that relieves his or her pain. As Rabbi Shais Taub writes in his excellent GOD of Our Understanding, “(1) [Addicts] are profoundly disturbed and unsettled with their own existence as an entity apart from God; (2) for reasons unknown, they can somehow briefly simulate relief from this condition by taking their drug of choice.”

The first three of the famous Twelve Steps are  to admit that one is powerless over one’s addiction, to recognize a Higher Power, and to turn one’s will and one’s life over to its care. A parody of those first three steps (also in the book) describes the mindset of an addict: “1. We admitted we were powerless over nothing – that we could manage our lives perfectly and those of anyone who would let us. 2. Came to believe that there was no power greater than ourselves and the rest of the world was insane. 3. Made a decision to have our loved ones turn their wills and their lives over to our care even though they could not understand us at all.” Rabbi Taub explains at length how the addict needs spiritual care as well as physical and emotional care, and for many, it is only letting go of the need to control their own lives and reliance on a higher power that will heal the root of their addiction and not just its symptoms.

Addiction = Control.

What at that Massachusetts inlet freed us?

A sense of the miraculous.

Okay, the water merely lapped the shore; it didn’t split for us. The stars watched silently just as they watched Rome burn and the space shuttle launch. But they made us modern time-slaves feel like the Hebrews on the shore. We felt that there is something we cannot grasp, and we were emancipated by it. The need to be masters subjugated us, and when we saw the sea and the stars that we could not hope to own, we were allowed to escape.

In other words: No matter how many statues topple, no matter how many oppressors fall or pharaohs drown, someone will always rule over us, namely our own egos, our tendency to view everything in terms of ourselves. It gives us a sense of entitlement (and insists we’d survive the Total Perspective Vortex). It asserts that we’ve got it all figured out (unlike all those other saps). It contends that our way is probably the best way (and it always is, after careful factual analysis). Every time we free ourselves from some external limitation, it rubs its hands with glee – more time for me and my plans and dreams.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having an identity. Ego, like everything, is healthy in moderation, and self-destruction in the name of humility might be one of the biggest challenges of our time, much more than the base arrogance common a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, enough self-absorption and self-centeredness and you end up on a beach in the wee hours of the morning, struggling. The solution to our pretensions of mastery and conquest is exposure to some form of the infinite, something that is above nature, beyond time and therefore beyond us. A proof that we are not G-d. A vast sea and uncountable stars. A miracle.

My father told me a story he heard second-hand of an atheist addict who struggled for weeks, perhaps months, with the concept of a higher power that the Twelve Steps demanded. One night he stood outside and looked up at the stars and came to a startling conclusion – “I didn’t make them. I cannot make them. Something else must have.” This thought was the linchpin of his eventual recovery. A quiet hour on a beach could do the same for us all.

The vastness of reality should not depress us but hearten us. What will happen, will happen, and the stars will watch on, forever.

 

 

Further reading: GOD of Our Understanding by Rabbi Shais Taub; ספר המאמרים עטר”ת פ’ חיי שרה

Image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

 

The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

There was a Russian guy I knew in Tel Aviv who clearly lived with pain and depression. He hated everyone and everything, but not all on the same day. We got along. I once asked him if, when he went to sleep, he looked forward to the fresh start of the morning, whether he felt the potential of the new day when he woke up. He rolled his eyes and said, “What am I, twelve?” If I gave in to my own gnawing feelings of despair, I would’ve said fourteen, since G-d split my life open with an ice pick when I was fifteen.

Okay, there’s no way you’re not going to think that’s melodramatic after you hear the story. I wasn’t raped or abused, G-d forbid; I didn’t try to kill myself; I wasn’t forced to listen to Nickelback on infinite repeat. I just went to a party. Not even a real party; a nice-Jewish-kids-from-the-suburbs-try-to-party party.

That’s all.

It was a Saturday night in September of sophomore year. I remember because before my parents drove me there I showered and changed out of my Shabbos clothes into what I considered social clothes. It probably involved a T-Shirt and jeans. What did I know? I hadn’t been to a high school bash before, but my time had come; a guy in our class lived in a big house, and his folks were out of town for the weekend. I looked forward to it.

There was less Xbox than I expected.

I waved my parents off and went around the back entrance. Oh. Dude from school was hanging out in the Jacuzzi with some girls. Nice guy. Still like him to this day. Welcomed me and told me everyone was in the basement.

Through a beautiful, dramatic living room and down to the bottom. It was busy. A bunch of people were playing pool. Some were smoking hookah. On a side table, someone set up an electronic pocket scale exactly like the one my father uses to weigh gunpowder. Boys and girls cavorted (pardon my French) in the bedrooms. There was alcohol everywhere replenished from a bona fide wine cellar (never saw one of those before). It wasn’t really my thing. Or at least, I wasn’t interested in finding out if it was. Now, my father offered me beer and whiskey all the time and I had definitely noticed these girl things before. None of this should have been any kind of shock. Nevertheless… I retreated into myself, struck dumb. I sat on the side, fended off offers of fun & substances, and waited ‘till the morning for it to end.

It still hasn’t.

The sun came up and I went to school on Monday and after a week the head cold from sleeping for a couple of hours under an air vent in the home theater burned away, but I was different forever. From something I doubt ninety-five percent of the attendees remembered two months later.

Now, by the time you’re fifteen, you already know that you’re screwed up. Some of us know it when we’re very little, but the teen years really ram it in everyone’s face. More and more of your waking hours are occupied by Screw-up; the kid you once were has to fight an uphill battle for every moment of your attention. I knew of my own daily struggle with Screw-up, and since I was a smarty pants in Honors Algebra I made the connection and assumed everyone had their own issues, even though we didn’t speak of the issues, we didn’t live the issues, and we didn’t campaign for acceptance of our issues. Our school was a happy place of music, learning and sunshine (who am I kidding? It was a hippie commune with textbooks. We didn’t even have a building) in a non-ironic, non-creepy way.

Why didn’t anyone release or even talk about the Screw-up at school? It’s possible they did, and I just didn’t notice. I was several years and dozens of disillusions away from beginning to notice other people’s issues, and to this day I have friends who were raised by Chassidic wolves with iced vodka for blood that noticed Screw-up better when they played with their Aleph-Beis blocks than I do now. The subtle web of damaged human contact in which I bathe leaps out at me like the ninja in this picture:

shluchim

I know for a fact, however, that my parents rarely released their Screw-ups, and from my early dealings with my own S.U., I grasped how difficult this was. I tried to live up to them. They were subtle, they were dignified (especially my mother, may she be well and not get too upset over anything I write), and I expected the same of everyone else.

That night, in my eyes, everyone’s worth took a dive.

Since that night, in some small way, people are animals.

You know what it’s like? Stand in front of a mirror, make sure no one’s around, and take the pointer and middle finger of each hand and insert them into your mouth (I’m going somewhere with this). Pull back and sideways at your mouth’s four corners so you reveal a good amount of tooth and gum. See how creepy that is? Aren’t your hyper aware of your skull right now? We love the sight of our own faces, normally. But that’s because we think of ourselves as ourselves, not as animated meat sacks. Like everything from umbrellas to ultrabooks, the sign of good craftsmanship is the sublimation of the atoms and the molecules and the wood and the plastic into something higher. Look just a little too much at the meat and it’s unsettling. The composite disintegrate into parts, matter disengages from form, we become aware of our bodies, and we don’t like it. I certainly didn’t like it that September night in sophomore year.

I want to go back. I want to be fourteen, when I was worried about my sanity but not about the world’s. I want days that end as optimistic and as integrated as they start. I want to greet the stars not with weariness and melancholy but with the wonder I felt as I gazed at the celestial and mortal glowings on the drives to grandma’s house and didn’t understand how the moon followed us home.

Most nights, I think it’s impossible, and sleep to forget.

When I don’t, it’s because an old Jew in Brooklyn who spoke English with an accent said that this world is not a jungle. This world is a garden, he said and says. He, whose sainted father wrote kabbalistic teachings that strike the mind like orchard-scented thunderbolts but died young surrounded by loincloth-wearing savages for insisting on Kosher matzah for his congregants. He, whose father-in-law had to send teenaged yeshiva students to their deaths to teach Jewish children about Moses. He, who from childhood struggled to understand how in Messianic times we will thank G-d for the tribulations of this longest exile, its inquisitions and its pogroms and its bookend holocausts.

He insisted and insists that the world is G-d’s garden.

Why do I believe him, when I do?

At fourteen I had high hopes for the world even though I’d met my own potential for ugliness, and I would have needed only the G-dliness within to right the sinking ship of my thought, words, and deeds. At fifteen, my eyes opened to a flawed reality, and I needed to hear a brave voice. I needed to hear that there was more at issue here than my feelings. I needed to hear someone deny, truth to power, that prayer was here to make us feel better about the messed up world and that the highest human achievement existed in the context of that mess. I needed someone to deny that everything good is only a metaphor for something evil. I needed to hear someone say that G-d is real, the most real, and that He runs the world, that it’s not a jungle and that so help us, warts and all, we will say it’s beautiful and we won’t be lying.

If I can trust that after plunging through layer upon layer of disillusionment and fear I will hit upon the solid ground of his conviction instead of some naïve dream, I’ll escape this place.

I really should call that Russian guy.

 

Featured image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0. Post title shamelessly stolen from an Explosions in the Sky album which you should listen to while you stargaze.

The Good – Chapter 1 – “Chats”

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

“As far as technically illegal deals with lobbyists go,” Martin Bridge’s staffer told him as he left the office, “this one’s a no-brainer.” Martin walked down the steps to the black Escalade that always awaited him. Jerry, his man from the Capitol Police, held the door open for him and waited for the representative from Nebraska to slide into the back before he took his own seat behind the wheel and asked, “Where to, sir?”

“The Lincoln Memorial, please, Jerry.” If the bodyguard chauffeur was surprised, he didn’t show it. The car rolled off.

Martin sat in silence and brooded the whole way there, fingers at his salt-and-pepper temples. As a rookie congressman he appreciated his experienced staff, but the word ‘illegal’ still sent a shiver down his neck. He had no personal knowledge of lobbying laws but from the number of times they reviewed the procedure with him he had an idea of the price of indiscretion. He needed some fresh air. And a hot dog.

The April day was breezy and the cherry blossoms were in bloom as he walked down one of the arcing boulevards near the memorial. Miguel’s stand wasn’t in its usual spot in the shadow of the columned temple. Why, he asked himself, did everything in Washington have to be so complicated? He came here to do some good for his fellow countrymen, but he found out quickly just how many twisted rings one had to leap through to walk in a straight line in Washington, DC. If anyone was to listen to his proposals, he needed leverage; leverage was a synonym for money, and for money, was to find out how he could help an American subsidiary of an international body representing Middle East oil interests. It’s just the way it works here, they told Martin over and over. And now even his favorite simple lunch spot had moved, as if some minor political deity decided he ought to eat like an elitist if he was to make a backroom deal that afternoon.

“Are you lookin‘ for Miguel, sir?” called a voice from behind. He turned to see a tall young woman in a confectioner’s uniform with her own hot dog stand identical to Miguel’s just a few feet away.

“I am, actually. Where is he?”

“He wasn’t feeling well. Food poisoning. Ain’t it ironic?” She flashed a thousand-watt smile.

“Well, maybe you can help me-

“You’re hungry,” said the woman. She spoke with a slight Southern twang.

“Ravenous.” He grinned. He described the type of dog he liked and she went to work preparing it. He was about to admonish her for adding too much mustard, but like Miguel her ratios were perfect. He pressed his lips together, impressed.

“I’m proud of bein’ good at what I do,” she offered when she saw his reaction.

“So am I.” She raised a questioning eyebrow. “Why, I’m actually,” he said, the words still novel, “I’m actually a congressman.”

“That’s amazin‘,” she said. “Where from?”

“Nebraska.”

“Wow. I always wanted to live in the countryside. Did you grow up on a farm?”

“I grew up in New York, actually, before my parents moved out west. I was a Brooklyn boy.”

“Brooklyn?” she said, and handed over what to his astonishment was a perfect hot dog. Cherry trees billowed overhead against the clear blue sky. “One of my best friends is from Brooklyn.”

 

 

Roger sat in a dark room, drinking pop and waiting for the boss’s e-mail to slide onto his screen. He browsed as he waited, not in the Roman market of the new Internet, full of order and structure, a million cries for attention out on the cobblestones. No, his world was the catacombs, the mossy, dank underbelly of the ‘net, where people walk quickly, hooded and suspicious, one hand always on their knives, afraid to draw attention to themselves, each involved in his own important business.

He read the words of a thousand different types, of hackers and dissidents and madmen and people just looking for sick laughs. There were dwarves down in those tunnels, stout men of bold heart who chiseled works of stunning beauty from the foundations of the city; there were gnomes, slight and disfigured and afraid of every living thing; there were dark elves, fierce warriors who worshiped dark gods of violence; there were trolls who harried all travelers. The denizens of this dark realm were united only by a disdain for the world of sunlight; the surface dwellers had no inkling of who truly ruled the city.

Roger was raised in those hallowed halls, and he strode them with the confidence of a man at home. He loved the freedom, the wild creativity, the potential of the human mind set free in its beauty and its obscenity. By the time he was twelve, there was no depraved thing in the world he had not seen, and his school friends couldn’t hope to compete with the merry band with which he shared his nights, raiding and pillaging and laughing until sunrise. He was the youngest hacker activist, a squire of the night.

Until the boss found him.

He was herding back in those days, gathering hordes of computers into his employ, mostly for Denial of Service attacks but also for The Big One, the fruit of long hours’ toil. The idea came to him during one of his marathon all-nighters (many become hackers and end up staying awake through the night; he was an insomniac since toddlerhood and ended up hacking): a new method for brute-force attacks, to run on a distributed network of slave machines. A means to an electronic zombie apocalypse.  It was beautiful, it was powerful, it was secret.

He received an e-mail about it.

He didn’t realize the nature of the message at first; it was encrypted, a slice of random-looking information. He assumed it was some kind of error, a postage mix-up. It certainly wasn’t encrypted with his public key, which would allow Roger, and only Roger, to read the message. He forgot about it. It languished in his e-mail for weeks until, on a whim, he tried to decode it using his private key. The one nobody knew but him and that could only be pried from his dead, callused, fingers. It worked. The encryption unraveled. He tried to trace the e-mail, cold sweat dripping down his brow, but the address was utterly anonymous. It could be from some Chinese kid in an internet café, or a hacker collective in Belarus, or the old lady down the hall. His system had been violated by a stranger in the wind.

It made him shudder to think of the childish, violent e-mail he’d sent in return. If he had known the type of person he was insulting…

A metallic ping surfaced through the electric blare of his music to interrupt his thoughts. He switched to his inbox and found the message, terse as always:

FNET/#hax/HELLIX/SHTDWN

He smiled a predator’s smile.

 

 

Willie Stewart flattened himself against the brick wall of the alley, cushioned by his empty backpack. The passerby on Fulton didn’t need to see the three of them huddled closely and speaking to each other’s shoes. “What about the homeless guy?” he asked.

“You’re kiddin‘ me,” spat Jamal, twice Willie’s size and almost twice his age. “He’ll be scared out of his mind. Don’t say you’re running home to your momma now.” He wasn’t Willie’s friendliest uncle.

Willie shook his head. “Just tell me again why I’m the one going in.”

Jamal swore. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re the youngest. You have a face that says you never committed no crime.”

“I really never did,” said Willie.

Jamal ignored him. “They’ll never see it coming. Now take this.” He produced a nice matte black .22 from his pocket, pulled up Willie’s t-shirt, and shoved the pistol into the teen’s waistband. Willie looked like he just swallowed something terrible that was about to come back up and tugged down on his shirt hem. “We’ll be right behind you,” said Jamal. He grinned. “A couple of hours from now you’ll be pickin‘ out new shoes.” Willie’s head bobbled in affirmation and he lurched out of the alley before he could think of everything that could go wrong with their plan.

He tied a black bandana over his mouth, pulled up his sagging jeans, and pulled open the drugstore door. Bells tinkled overhead. The small store was cluttered and stuffy. On the once-white tiled floor next to the door lay a coarse round red mat, on which a brown mutt awoke, raised an eyelid and twitched its nose, and went back to sleep. Willie approached the deserted counter with its grubby sign informing shoppers at what age they could buy tobacco; it showed a date three years before he was born. Where’s the storekeeper? he wondered. He must be in the back. The chair in the corner near the coffeemaker where the homeless man sat was also empty. His heart ratcheted in his chest.

“Good afternoon, Willie.”

He spun. His gun leapt into his hand. He pointed it into the face of Homeless Guy, who blinked in surprise and took a step back. “Down on the ground!” yelled Willie, voice breaking. The old hobo obeyed, sinking to his knees, hands behind his head. The young robber glanced at the man’s ruined teeth and gnarled dreadlocks and calm face before turning around and vaulting the store’s counter. Cash register: open; Money: into his pack; no sound but his own gasps. Dog: Still asleep; Homeless guy: still on the ground, staring at him. Bag: zipped; Gun: back in his pants. Over the counter. Three steps from freedom.

“Willie,” said the derelict. The teen took his hand off the door and let it swing shut. The bells jingled lightly. He knows my name. The thought caromed around his mind, looking for an emotion to incite. “I know about your uncle,” said the scruffy man, voice a rough slur. Willie’s first instinct was to yank the gun on him again. But then, what? Shoot him?

He knows my name.

“I’m not going to stop you walking out that door,” said the old man. “I’ll never tell anyone who robbed this store. I even sent Mr. Gupta out for a smoke so there’d be no other witnesses.”

“How-”

“Not ‘how.’ Why. Why are you doing this?”

Something in the man’s voice compelled him to stay, though Willie’s every instinct screamed for him to run. The question wasn’t a demand or a rebuke; it was an honest inquiry, and dark patient eyes waited for his answer beneath a wrinkled brow.

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling like an idiot. “We need this money.”

“I know,” said the hobo, voice thick. He seemed to Willie to visibly slump. “Your mother has cancer, and y’all can’t afford the medicine. Your younger brother goes to special private school. Jamal and his gang want to help, but they don’t have the cash.”

Willie gaped behind the bandana. Who is this guy?

“I wasn’t asking what your reasons are,” said the hobo. “They’re good reasons. I asked why you’re doing this. Do you see the difference?”

Willie was surprised he didn’t hate the question. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He shook his head.

“You have your reasons, but you’re not forced. You do as you please. This is your decision.”

“What choice do I have?” Willie croaked.

“You have all the choice in the world,” thundered the old rasping voice. “You are responsible for what you do today. Whichever way you decide, it is your decision, not your uncle’s or your mother’s. It will not be decided by economic or political forces; it will not be decided by what you watch on TV or who your friends are. Now, Willie Stewart, don’t tell me what you have to do; tell me what you will do, and own it.”

“We need the money.”

“Maybe you need a clear conscience.”

“I’m going.”

“I’ll be here.”

Willie turned and opened the door into the bright light and the fresh air. He ran across the street to Jamal’s waiting car, threw his pack in, and jumped into the back seat. The Pontiac squealed into the flow of traffic. “Any trouble?” asked his uncle, unzipping the pack and examining the cash.

“No. The owner wasn’t even inside. Just the dog and the homeless guy.”

“What’d he do?”

“It was like you said,” Willie lied. “He was scared.”

“Of course he was,” said Jamal. “Ain’t no messin’ with a man with a gun.”

 

 

When Roger peeled back Hellix’s security like a can’s lid and the user’s private information cascaded into his lap, he felt the thrill of finding a good friend in some marketplace halfway around the world. This is what he lived for, once; the hunt, the scam, the theft.

Getting into the machine was like saddling a wild horse: First, the adrenaline of exposure to danger, like a brass section playing high notes in his brain. Then tentative steps, weighing the creature’s intentions.  Next, unwavering, he imposes his will; sweet freedom only comes to those who aren’t afraid to be in control, who don’t mind swinging the saddle over that proud back. Slowly, in the face of his strong will and agile mind, the animal calms, its bucking wanes. It shudders and slumps and surrenders.  Because, deep down, the animal wants to succumb; it needs a master.  And Roger was a master.

His eyes saw Hellix’s real name, address, social security number, and location. His fingers, full of potential energy, waited to harness the data. This was his rebellion, when he took every feeling of alienation, every long, lonely, painful night, every inch of his angst, and shoved it back in the face of the world. It was a nearly unbearable, and when he couldn’t stand mocking his prey any longer, when he was ready to show them just how badly they’d messed up that night, he’d free their information in some nightmarish scheme straight from his imagination and watch their growing panic with satisfaction.

Yes, he lived to hack.

Hellix seemed to be a typical loser, a clone of a thousand other people he could attack, but then, Roger rarely understood the boss’s choices. He’d dig deeper and deeper, cycle through contacts, looking for something, anything that made his mark special. Then he’d give up and do his job.

“Hideous,” he typed into the chat screen as he idly rifled through Hellix’s hard drive. The man (though male was always a safe assumption, Roger had been surprised on that count before, and made sure, for curiosity’s sake, to glean the info from mark’s files) was a typical IRC troll, devoted to harassing anyone who’d lend him attention, more stupid than average for hanging out in a hacker’s chat room. Perhaps there was a mutual arrangement in which the hackers got entertainment and protection from prying eyes (no decent person could spend much time reading anything Hellix typed) while the troll didn’t need to fear the electronic attacks sometimes pressed against his ilk. The thought made Roger click through to his own status program, which monitored his stealth and defenses during jobs. It showed all clear and in the green.

Hellix responded with a volley of obscenities and a link that Roger recognized to a shock site full of terrible, unsettling images. The two of them were the only active chat users; it was the middle of the afternoon, when the unemployed hackers slept and the employed ones worked; their pet ogre watched over the chat room. Roger drew his blade.

“It’s fun to come online anonymously and pretend you’re fourteen years old and don’t care about anything,” he typed. “Let’s you rampage. Release your stress. Some people around these parts even say it’s the healthiest thing; they don’t know how their friends cope without the outlet.” His suddenly thoughtful tone and proper spelling would themselves put Hellix on the defensive. He’d be rushing to figure out how to turn this around and make fun of it, the troll’s only defense. His predictability rendered him harmless to Roger, a hulking video game boss who attacked and retreated in patterns.

“But you’re not anonymous, Eric. You’re a person, just like me. What would your daughter Kaylee say if she knew the things you said on here?” Roger could practically hear the tinkling sound of insurance salesman Eric Spellman’s (alias: Hellix) blood turning to ice.

A pregnant pause ensued, followed by swearing. “Wut r u, the morality police?” he tried to mock.

“I’m gonna have to put that on the list of your quotes I’ll mail to your wife and daughter in Scottsdale.”

“Please don’t do that,” said Hellix, politeness and grammar surfacing as one.

“Relax. I didn’t hack you so I can ruin your life. I hacked you to get your attention.”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to explain to me why Eric Spellman is the real you and deserves to live, and why Hellix deserves to die.”

Hellix swore again. “Is this a joke?”

“No. You don’t realize it, but this is as serious as it gets. Stop worrying about all the hackers in here reading the chat logs and finding out your name. Stop worrying about your wife and daughter. It’s time to make a decision.”

“And what’s that?”

“Who do you want to be?” asked Roger, shoving his sword into the belly of the beast.

 

 

Martin laughed as she nearly tripped up the steps of the Memorial, where he sat eating his third heavenly hot dog. “You sure are a hungry congressman,” she said, arranging herself a few feet away, allowing tourists to pass between them as they spoke.

He dabbed his lips with a napkin. “I had a busy morning and the afternoon’s shaping up to be a wallop as well,” said Martin.

“Tsk, I bet it is. I wish…” she trailed off, looking over the long reflecting pool, hair brushed by sunlight.

“What is it?” asked the congressman.

“I wish I had such an important job. Then I could make people’s lives better, you know?”

“Well, now, I don’t know how much better this’ll make you feel, but you fix up a mighty fine frankfurter.”

“Thank you. I just wish I was free to help people. I have to live paycheck to paycheck, and I have my little brother to worry about, and, well, I just don’t have time to think about too many people other than myself, I’m afraid. I probably shouldn’t even take breaks to speak to dashing politicians.” The smile again. Martin couldn’t help but grin in response.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” he asked.

Her back tightened and her head snapped around to face him. “No,” she said. She stood up, dusted herself off, and stepped down, back toward her abandoned snack cart.

“Hey, wait,” Martin called after her, confounded. “Is something wrong?”

She whirled. “You politicians are all alike. You think everythin’ can be bought. I don’t need your help, or anyone else’s. I’m not some animal to stable and feed.” She marched off, leaving the confused congressman to clutch at his hot dog wrapper and ruminate at Abraham Lincoln’s feet.

 

 

In a dark room in the Midwest, a cellphone buzzed. A hand crumpled an aluminum can, threw it in the trash, and answered the phone, pressing it to an ear. Thirty seconds later it grabbed a black coat, turned a doorknob, hailed a cab, and was gone.

 

 

In the nation’s capital, a cellphone buzzed. Red lips pursed as a message spoke through a curtain of red hair. She laid a small stack of cash inside the snack cart for Miguel, and a minute later evaporated into a crowded Metro station.

 

 

In a dusty New York drugstore, an ancient phone rang. Its shrill mechanical trill woke a dog, who shook herself off and went sniffing for treats. Mr. Gupta answered, and handed it over the counter to an old fellow he never expected to stay longer than a night. The recipient didn’t say anything the entire call, just listened, and slowly handed it back to the store owner, an indecipherable look on his face. Gupta placed the receiver on its cradle and asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Fine,” rumbled the old man. He sat down on his stool and rummaged in his pack for something. He produced an old, coverless paperback, and began to read.

“What do you have there?” asked Gupta.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Ever heard of her?”

“No.”

“Her endings are inevitable.”

“Sounds boring,” said the store owner, and began to wipe his counter.

“No,” he said, though he seemed to be speaking to himself. He turned the page and eyed the door. “You never see them coming, ‘till they do.”

The Good – Prologue – “Dredging Up a Derelict”

THE GOOD

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

 

The damn kids have no respect, thought Malcolm Moses Worthy as he ladled rice into a bowl the color of a wet sidewalk. His granddaughter Marcy was always lecturing him on the alternatives. “What would you prefer, Grandpa?” she’d ask, chin thrust out, brown eyes protruding, muscled brown arms shooting out of her purple sun dress in frenzied indignation. “They could be out on the street. They could be in gangs. Instead they come and play Foosball and watch TV at the Y. Why you complainin‘?”

“I know, I know,” he always answered, and when she turned to go drag one of the hyperactive punks off a ceiling fixture or something he rolled his eyes. Marcy was his only granddaughter, and when she asked her grandfather to accompany her through the long days managing the Y he couldn’t say no. Those kids though! Nothing like when he was their age. They were loud, vulgar as anything, had no interest in the world past the end of their own noses. He would sit at one of the round tables in the cafeteria, eating and reading his books and occasionally casting a glance of death at boys who got too close. He would catch their eye and watch as their arrogance melted into confusion and then into the slightest glimmer of fear of the old man who they didn’t understand. Then he’d look back down at his plate and they would scamper off. He rarely said a word to any of the boys, though Marcy said they asked her about him constantly. The only time he opened his mouth was when he heard the way the older boys would talk about their girlfriends. Malcolm would shower the teens with invective like Philistine arrows until they’d run for cover into the gym or the pool room, swearing all the way. Marcy said it reminded her of the stories of her great-grandfather the minister rebuking his recalcitrant congregation, and Malcolm would grumble and ask for more chicken. It was tedious, day in, day out, but, though he’d never tell Marcy, it beat the hell out of sitting alone in his apartment.

He returned to his customary booth next to the window that looked in on the pool. He put a spoon full of rice in his mouth and picked up his worn paperback. Murder on the Orient Express. He’d read it dozens of times, and it never got old. The perfect murder, and Poirot right in the thick of the mystery. A battle of wits and logic on a train immobilized by snow. Finger-lickin‘ good. He was nearly at the end, where Poirot proposes two different scenarios for the murder. Malcolm always thought it bordered on impossible that someone from outside of the train did the crime, not just because the author set up the entire story as a closed-room mystery and it would violate the unspoken pact between reader and writer to allow an unforseeable, unmentioned character to be the murderer, but because if it were really an outside job, someone on the train nevertheless could have done it. The truth would be clumsier and less elegant that the possible truth. Reality would fail to live up to the detective’s mind. No, from the moment he ties the clues together, there is only one possible answer, one way it could really go.

It was a quiet afternoon, so it wasn’t hard for Malcolm to hear Marcy’s voice. He looked to the front desk on the other side of the atrium. Normally they sat in silence and simply enjoyed each other’s company, but she’d often call out things she read on the Internet or describe some scheduling issue and ask his thoughts. He would then, to her agitation, take out his cell phone, hit “2” on speed dial, and call her. She thought it was idiotic to speak on the phone to someone in the same room; he thought it was crass to shout across the hall at each other.

She wasn’t speaking to him, however, but to the strangest couple he had ever seen in his tenure at the Bed-Stuy YMCA. They were white, first of all, not so unusual after years of neighborhood gentrification. They didn’t look like the creative twenty-year olds he’d normally see on the sidewalks. The woman was much taller than the man and wore a grey cardigan over a black blouse with a polka-dot skirt that sent Malcolm back to the sunny Tennessee streets of his youth. Despite her unusual height she had a certain grace. Her shoulder-length straight hair was the color of fire. He placed her in her mid-thirties.

The man was her opposite in every way. If he could be called a man, that is. Malcolm estimated him to be about sixteen years old, and short. He wore an honest-to-goodness black trench coat. His face was incredibly pale and the black mop on his head completed the image of an intentional social outcast. Judging by the slender wrists resting next to the sign-in pad and the slim face, he was underweight.

What are they doing here? wondered Malcolm as Marcy’s face slanted from polite office bureaucrat to curious granddaughter as she lifted a pink-nailed finger and pointed it in his direction. The pair turned as one to face him, and he raised a hand in a cautious wave. The woman thanked Marcy and they walked toward Malcolm, pausing to wait for two boys to chase a basketball across their path.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. He flipped it open and read a message from Marcy: “They asked for Moses.” He shook his head at her across the room. The only people he ever met who knew his middle name were family members and private investigators. They weren’t the former, and they couldn’t be the latter. The teenager slouched even shorter and punier when he walked, while the woman floated with learned grace. A dancer, thought Malcolm. Or perhaps a gymnast.

They approached and the woman asked, “May we sit?”

Malcolm nodded and gestured to the opposite bench of the booth. The teen sat first, against the window. He peered through it as he extended his hand to Malcolm. “Roger,” he said. His voice was reedy and his grip was firm. “This is Natalie.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie as she sat and smoothed her skirt.

“Likewise,” he said. He watched them, full of patience, Roger studying the empty pool with untoward curiosity and Natalie looking at his bowl of rice and his paperback novel, an indecipherable smile on her lips.

“I didn’t actually believe you were eighty until now,” said Roger.

Until now? wondered Malcolm. “What gives it away?” he asked in his friendliest tone.

“Grey dreadlocks. Wrinkly face. Weird voice.” Malcolm suffered a severe bronchial infection a decade earlier that left his voice rough and raspy. “What the hell kind of eighty-year-old wears dreadlocks?”

“The kind you ought to respect, young man,” said Malcolm. He glared at Roger who continued to stare through the window with his brown eyes.

“Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie, “what Roger meant to say is that it’s hard to reconcile what we know of your achievements with your old age. We all imagine our heroes to be young, don’t we?” She spoke slowly, almost dreamily.

Malcolm dropped his friendly façade like a garbage bag. “Who are you? What do you want with me? If you’re private investigators you’re very bad ones.”

Roger began to snicker. Natalie said, “We’re not here to investigate you, Mr. Worthy. We’re here to make you an offer.”

“Since when do octogenarians have to suffer offers?”

“Not all eighty-year-olds have PhDs from Stanford they keep secret, Mr. Worthy; most weren’t professors, or activists, or soldiers. You’ve been all three.” Natalie smiled.

Malcolm took this revelation of knowledge in stride. “You want my advice or something?”

“We want to hire you.”

“To do what?”

“To do what you do best. Help us start a revolution.”

Malcolm burst with surprised laughter. “What are you, communists?” He laughed more.

“No. Materialist dialectics don’t interest us.”

“Well, Ms…What was your last name?”

“Natalie is just fine, Mr. Worthy.”

“Natalie, of course. What is it then? Are you environmentalists? Race warriors? Some kind of charity? Maybe you’re capitalists, lobbying for some big business?”

She shook her head. Roger said, “Do we look like morons to you?”

“Good-cop bad-cop?” Malcolm asked with a grin, as he looked between the two.

“We’re not cops, Mr. Worthy. Roger’s just expressing his adolescence.”

Roger frowned but said nothing.

“Is this going somewhere? I’m in the middle of a good book here.”

She thought for a moment and said, “Say we were communists. We came here to get your advice for fomenting a worker’s revolution here in New York. What would you say?”

“I’d say ‘get lost.'”

“Why would you say that? You were a commie in San Francisco, redder than Stalin if the stories have it right.”

“Who’s telling stories?”

“Apologies, Mr. Worthy, but I can’t say. Not yet. You used to be a communist,” she persisted. “Why wouldn’t you help a revolution now?”

“I don’t know you, Natalie, and I shouldn’t speak to you of personal opinions,” he said. “On the other hand, it has been such a long time since I was asked to lecture.” She leaned on the table and laced her fingers beneath her chin, watching him. He glanced at the front desk, where Marcy was trying to catch his eye. He smiled at her.

He cleared his throat and said, “Revolutions are for young fools, begging your pardon,” he said. “I used to not even care what the cause was, as long as it was revolutionary. Anything was better than the diseased status quo. Then I grew up and realized it’s not so simple. Human problems are resilient. They don’t disappear because a bunch of idealistic children think they should.”

“But you’re an African-American,” said Natalie, full of Socratic innocence. “Don’t you benefit from revolutionaries who came before you in this country? Civil rights activists, at least? We know you met Martin Luther King. And Malcolm X.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “They were special men, Natalie, but their revolution wasn’t a revolution in the truest sense of the word. They changed everything, but they changed nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Laws weren’t the problem. People were the problem. Those who were racists, true, unrepentant racists, I mean, of the type uncommon today, remained racist after everything. And my fellow African-Americans…” he trailed off.

“We know exactly what you mean, Mr. Worthy,” Natalie said. “People are the problem, and there is only one way to fix people.”

“Education,” he said instantly, playing his part in an old dialogue. “You’re education reformists?” his bushy eyebrows floated upward.

“Not exactly.”

“Good. I hate education reformists.”

“Our job is to give people choices, Mr. Worthy.”

“What kind of choices?” asked Malcolm.

“Imagine a black boy, a high school student here in Brooklyn, who is considering joining a gang. He should know that he has a choice in the matter.”

“So you offer some kind of after-school programming?” he asked, exasperation tinging his voice.

Roger loosed a tremendous sigh and turned to face him. “No. We show him that he is more than his choice, and set him free.”

“You’re a religious group?”

“G-d, no, I’m an atheist. Listen to what I’m saying,” said Roger. He continued evenly, “I did the same thing you did, you know. When they came for me. I tried to fit it into every box I knew. Eventually I ran out of boxes. This is something different. A real revolution.” For the first time since they’d sat down, Roger seemed to care about the conversation.

“I don’t understand.”

“Our boss can explain it to you better than we can,” said Natalie. “Come with us, and we’ll introduce you.”

“So it’s not just the two of you?”

“No, Mr. Worthy. There are many of us,” said Natalie.

“We are legion,” Roger said, and grinned, though Malcolm didn’t understand what was funny. Natalie rolled her eyes.

“Just come and hear us out. We’ll have you back before Marcy closes up shop.”

“Hmm,” grunted Malcolm. They know a lot about me, he thought. It could be a trap. And even if it’s not, I’m too old for all this. He glanced down at his book. If I don’t go, it might ruin the entire plot, he thought. His own imagination surprised him. Part of him felt that he was part of some grand plan, and that if he declined, it’d be summoning a murderer from outside the train. I’m not being logical, he thought, even as he said, “Alright. I’ll come. But if I miss Law and Order, I’m gonna be one grumpy old SOB.”

“I can’t even imagine what that’d be like,” said Roger, as Natalie stood and offered her hand. Malcolm refused it and grabbed his black cane from where it stood propped against the booth. He texted Marcy, “Be back soon.”

She texted him a question mark. He sent one back, and pocketed his phone.

 

From a Dream, Shabbos Night, 18 January, 2014

Rude, I think, as the guy next to me physically claims two-thirds of the bench, leaving me to squeeze my wide frame into one corner and struggle not to fall off or elbow the jerk in the face as I pull my oxfords on, right, then left, and lace them, left, right. My mother and I are sitting back-to-back on one of those wide benches they have in JFK so there’s plenty of room for everyone to sit and put their shoes on after passing through security, but the geniuses at the planning department didn’t account for this gigantic specimen of a Southern father trying and failing to get his kids to quiet down as he buckles his boots, three rugrats orbiting him as if caught in his gravity field.

“Where do these people come from?” I ask my mother as we stride through the Terminal, searching for our gate, which is inevitably as far away from the security checkpoint as possible. Wherever one my access through the first thirty gates, neither we nor anyone we know have ever gone there.

“Just forget about it,” she says up at me. We make quite a pair. I’m 6’5″, she’s 5’6″;  in public, a suit jacket and a broad-brimmed fedora expand my silhouette to downright threatening dimensions, while her sweater and small purse somehow make her seem even smaller. I can be surly, especially when travelling and overwhelmed by crowds and loud noises; she’s quiet but a master of politeness, even friendliness, at least until we start getting the bureaucratic fake-smile-accompanying-bad-news stuff, in which case she introduces her wrath (which I know well) to new audiences. She walks at a quick pace, occasionally slipping through gaps in the foot traffic that would become tackle-takedowns if I attempted them; I have to swing wide for open waters and join her afterward.

We’re running late, and she’s secretly irritated about it. I’m always tardy, and she never is. I have tried to explain to her the joy of being late, the way in which G-d is open to those who themselves are open, and she always raises an eyebrow and tells me to save it for the other Rabbis. So when I went to sleep last night I wholly intended to submit to my mother’s preference: 5:30 reveille, 6:30 on the road, 7:00 at the airport, 8:30 flight. Due to the laws of physics pertaining only to alarm clocks we woke at 6:30 and now it’s 8:15 and I’m dodging one of those indoor cars they use to shuttle the elderly and the infirm around the terminal as my mother points at the square sign announcing Gate 2 as if it were the very stamp of imminent redemption. They’re already boarding, but the line is long, and we have never met anyone who is a medallion member or sits in zones one through seven; they must all fly to Walla Walla or something from those first thirty gates.

I need to use the restroom and I leave my heavy sandwich-laden backpack with my mother as I scramble back up the terminal. The sweat band of my hat is damp with nervous perspiration and I’m overheating in my four layers. I should have left my jacket with mom as well. The bathroom is closed for maintenance. Wonderful. I have no idea where to find another one until a kind elderly woman notes my distress and directs me to Sam’s Shoes, a large establishment right across the wide terminal hallway that has a restroom on premises. I make for the store, eyeing its dusty window display with anxiety. The interior is no better. It is a shoe store from a different country and a different age, recently deserted. Haphazard stacks of shoeboxes clutter the leather air. A counter messy with laces and rags sits in one corner next to a polishing chair whose back reaches the low ceiling. A door in the rear wall is labeled with the male and female bathroom symbols and I feel like a lummox as I drag through the skewed racks, nearly knocking something over at every corner.

Inching around the last bend, I almost walk straight into him. He is bent over, heaving boxes into place under a display of ghastly beige leather slip-ons festooned with maroon buckles. He wears a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and his aged, pockmarked face and bloodshot eyes are framed by mutton chops and a feathery moustache, both greying. A worn flat cap tops his head. He stares at me, unmoving, and I get the absurd sense that I am for some reason unwelcome in his store. I move with all my grace to slip past him and the heel of my shoe nips his. “Sorry,” I mutter and open the door to the ancient bathroom whose light is turned on by (Lord help us) pulling a chain. Once I’m done I wash my hands and pull the door closed behind me. I say the words of the Asher Yatzar, all thoughts of my creator driven from my head by the words “New York” and “Singapore” clattering out of the airport P.A. The man is not where he was before and I glance up to find him by the counter. I nod in the friendly but reserved way known to all introverts and begin picking my way toward the store’s exit which I can detect by a slight waft of air and a few rays of white light that manage to diffract around a tower of wafer-soled fashionable sell-out Steve Maddens.

I feel someone stepping on the heel of my shoe. I jump, turn around, and find him staring me straight in the eye, unflinching. I am afraid. I turn back to the exit and begin walking faster, and I feel another tug at my heel. I am almost at the exit as he steps on me again and this time pulls my shoe clean off as I hop into the foot traffic of the terminal, glad to be among people once more. My shoe comes skidding across the white tile, kicked by the stumpy man, hands akimbo, indignation on his face. A name tag at his chest reads “Sam.” I stick my foot in my shoe and my face in his face. I can feel myself towering over him impressively and my expression reads “what in the world is wrong with you.” He shoves me in the chest with both hands. He is surprisingly strong. I lose my balance and step back. The woman’s voice on the P.A. sounds impatient as she announces final boarding for my flight. I can’t imagine what my mother is doing.

“You stepped on me,” Sam says. His eyes don’t leave mine for a second. He is unbearably ugly.

“I said I was sorry,” I say, and it somehow sounds lame, even to me.

“No, now you are sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t smile. He is not saying it as I would, with self-effacement and humor, a gesture of goodwill. He is pleased by my discomfort. I can’t handle it and turn to go, but he grabs my forearm with an iron grip and pulls me down close to his face. I smell garlic on his breath. I ball my fist. He smiles with horrible, ruined teeth and lets me go. He looks up at me, chin sticking out, full of pride. I am suddenly certain, for some reason, that he is Jewish. An inescapable urge to embrace him sweeps over me, but he is already stepping away. He shakes his head, as if I will never understand, and he returns to his store.

My mother ushers me onboard, embarrassed to have held up the flight. I fall into my seat in a daze. It is for some reason unbearable to adjust the air conditioning nozzle, or to slip my book into the seat-back pocket in front of me, or to hear the safety demonstration. I put in earplugs and close my eyes.

I think of him for thirty thousand feet, and beyond.

Featured Image from Flickr

The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, and The Fossils

In the fall of 1987, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits of blessed memory, engaged in a short correspondence about something the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote. The Chief Rabbi’s position was that, though well-stated and perfectly above-board, the Rebbe’s argument was “simplistic” (which Rabbi Jakobovits claimed is not at all in the pejorative; he used the Rebbe’s argument before he ever read the Rebbe’s words on the matter).

What is the simple argument in question?

The Rebbe wrote a famous letter in December 1961 on the much-hyped Torah/Science clash, specifically about evolution and the age of the universe. In it, he mentions the issue of fossils, dinosaur bones, etc. which seem to be, uh, slightly past their six thousandth birthdays. The Rebbe makes two points. The first: It is conceivable that dinosaurs and the like existed a few thousand years ago, and the earth’s past “atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc.” could have created fossils in a much shorter time than is normally considered possible.

This answer is common in the Torah/Science dialogue. It’s the second part which earned the Chief Rabbi’s attention:

“(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that G-d created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him), just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process.

As for the question, if it be true as above (b), why did G-d have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why G-d chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.” 

As previously mentioned, the Chief Rabbi does not argue with this point, but calls it simplistic; he resorted to using it because it was effective, but on its own it leaves him uncomfortable. This raises the question: If there are intellectual explanations for evolution and the age of the universe that fit with Torah, and in fact the Rebbe himself brings such an explanation for fossils as his “Point A”, what does the Rebbe gain with this second point? The explanation seems tacked on for those backed against the wall by science and have no other way out but to say “He just made fossils. So there.” The Rebbe confirms everyone’s worst suspicions about religious fundamentalism by ignoring evidence of an ancient universe with an argument that could be applied to any scientific fact we don’t like: G-d just made it look that way. Why would he do that? No idea, and how dare you ask.

Seems like a fundamental misstep, pun intended.

 

 

Now, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Lubavitch, or Chabad, is known for a specific, well-defined, vast theology/philosophy concerned with every aspect of life. Therefore, if we hope to understand the Rebbe’s position on any given matter, it would pay to examine the general perspective of Chabad philosophy.

Perspective is important because even if everyone agrees on empirical fact, where each person stands influences the interpretation of those facts. An example that’s near and dear to my heart is the endlessly-repeated back-and-forth on the relative evils of religion and atheism that I get to meet quite often thanks to the Internet (imagine the effort one used to have to exert to find idiots arguing. Now the entertainment is right in your bedroom). Archie the Atheist will say, “Grr, the religions. Crusades, terrorists.  Source of all evil. If only we all listened to the science.”

Davros the Devout will respond, “Bah! Humbug! You are wrong, because Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot/Dawkins!”

Archie will smile and say, “How do you know that those people weren’t evil because of the little bit of influence religion had on them?”

Davros will reply, “For that price, perhaps the evils of the religious are only due to not being religious enough. It’s too much G-dlessness that made them that way.”

You get the idea. Obviously the issue is more complicated than that, but it is clear one cannot deduce anything about the nature of evil from the examples of evil men alone, but must always fall back on one’s general vision of reality. This particular debate can be reduced to a fundamental disagreement about man’s true, “uncivilized” nature, i.e. whether man is naturally evil or naturally good. Whichever way one hypothesizes, one’s theory is untestable, as any debate on the Internet (despite all appearances) takes place from within the boundaries of civilization; no one arguing today can claim to be free of the influences of religion or atheism. Who can say whether thousands of years of religion has refined man or cast him into the depths, if a controlled test cannot be performed? Pure empiricism is not enough. When it comes to how one feels about the facts, living with the facts, perspective is everything.

 

 

Why are we here on this earth?

1) The nonreligious answer ultimately negates the question; to assume an absolute answer is to assume an absolute reality outside of any individual perspective which simply doesn’t exist, and no amount of scientific discovery and observation will answer the question. The universe simply is, we simply are, and we might as well live a satisfying existence while we’re here.

2) The religious answer is that we’re here to do what G-d wants. Life involves making the right choice between the gross and physical and the G-dly. We are only given so much time here, and we are responsible for our actions, words, and thoughts. “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil…choose life!”

3) Chassidus’s answer is that we’re not here at all, at least not in the usual sense of the word. It’s not that we exist, i.e. that we walk this earth, eat of its fruit, sleep, work, love, and raise children, and G-d expects us to do all the aforementioned in a G-dly way. He is all there is, was, and will be, a Necessary Existence, and everything that’s not Him is either false or an expression of Him. We don’t exist. Oh, it seems that we do exist? So G-d must need us for some great purpose. We’d do well to fulfill it.

The difference between the religious answer and the Chassidic one is only in our perspective; both advocate fulfilling G-d’s commandments and learning his wisdom. They are nevertheless profoundly different.

The religious and nonreligious answers both have human experience as the ultimate baseline of reality; the question is merely whether there is any higher cause which humanity can serve other than itself. For example, the nonreligious say that human intellect is an end unto itself, and thus any and all thought and inquiry needs no justification, the same way a basketball needs no justification. It takes up space; it exists. No more explanation is needed. The religious say that the human intellect is a means to an end; think kind thoughts and holy thoughts, and protect yourself from falsehood and blasphemy. Thoughts of illicit pleasure or of violence towards one’s fellow are contrary to G-d’s wishes.

Chassidus says that there is no intellect, there is only G-d, and if you seem to have thoughts, they’re only here to play some role in G-d’s plan. In other words, it’s not that intellect (or the world for that matter) is neutral, and we must use it according to G-d’s will; everything that exists is a claim against G-d’s singularity and must argue for its own right to exist. Guilty until proven useful.

 

 

At first, there was just G-d. He then created a world. The world is here for a specific purpose, and nothing exists without being part of that purpose; there is nothing here on technicality or by chance. This includes the human intellect. In fact, human intellect is the crowning glory of His purpose; He wants to fully express Himself in a place that denies Him, and there is only one entity in the entire creation that can go against his will, a human being. What makes a human, human, is the intellect. The mind can do one of two things: deny its Creator entry and thereby lose all justification for its own existence, or emancipate Him by thinking G-dly thoughts and thereby actualize the greatest potential in all of creation.

What, by the way, is a G-dly thought? This is a contradictory phrase. Is there any reason to suppose that the infinite being that created everything falls within the limits of rational thought? The most logical assumption is that an infinite divide separates G-d from us and our conception. Only one side of the relationship can initiate a connection, and it’s not the limited, physical side. If G-d decides for some strange reason that He wants to be known by the hunks of flesh that walk on two legs, it’s a different jar of gefilte fish. This odd desire of His gives genesis to the vast wisdom known as the Kabbalah. The Zohar and other works describe an intricate spiritual system of interlocking worlds, lights, vessels, contractions, and creations that span the vast distance between our physical world and G-d’s infinite light, a system that is utterly unnecessary. If G-d wills, physicality can arise with no spiritual antecedents, from true nothingness; He instead created logic, the System that must underlie anything that hopes to hide Him. Then He acted according to his own arbitrary rules as much as possible, and revealed his actions to the sages, all that we might be able to relate to Him, so that there could be a G-dly thought.

The practical upshot here is that knowledge is a dependent creation and a tremendous lowness in G-d’s eyes that one ought to use only to fulfill its purpose. Knowledge, as an end unto itself, does not exist, and that’s why the Rebbe added his second answer. The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom?

The more one comprehends, the more it seems everything must be comprehensible. The scientific worldview assumes that everything follows rules and patterns. If there’s something that seems to not make sense, it’s only because we haven’t yet invented a tool, physical or theoretical, that’s accurate or powerful enough to plumb the thing’s depths. A phenomenon that cannot be apprehended by the intellect in some way is by definition beyond the reach of science, and since science has never met such a phenomenon, it must not exist; a new discovery comes along that seems to contradict Torah, and if we cannot understand how the two can coexist, it bothers us. We demand answers. And the Rebbe spends much of his letter dispensing the answers: interpolation vs. extrapolation, dating methods, untestable assumptions, etc. But there is another aspect of reality that cannot be left out. As “simplistic” as it sounds, as much as we may have to leave our comfortable thrones as the arbiters of truth, there are some things that cannot be grasped by reason. He is the basis of reality, and intellect is a means to an end, not the other way around. It is more surprising that we comprehend anything than that we fail to comprehend something. The Rebbe’s second argument is not the desperate gamble of a harried believer, but the contextualization of the intellect, without which G-d remains divorced from reality, even for the religious.

 

 

This is why it makes sense to reach out to other Jews and get them to do things like wrap Tefilin or light Shabbos candles. Emphasis, to do things. The Rebbe advised people never to get into debates or intellectual arguments about Judaism on the street; get the commandment performed, that’s all that matters, that’s what will get people in touch with their heritage and their G-d. What of the marketplace of ideas, of weighing Judaism against other systems of thought? How could leather or a palm frond ever bolster confidence in Judaism as a way of life? Shouldn’t we be rational and only do that which totally makes sense to us?

Every Jew has a special Jewish soul, indestructible and united with G-d. Doing a mitzvah, one of His commandments, awakens that connection. One who serves G-d because it make sense really serves themselves, like a spouse who gets married because their mate is “just perfect” and get divorced when reality ousts the dream. This logical misstep of the religious, trimming G-d to fit their tastes instead of the other way around, transforms the whims of an individual into moral absolutes that must bind all of humanity. It changes an individual trying to do the right thing into an aggressor who campaigns against the heretic and apostate. They are the driver and G-d is the vehicle. Only the non-rational reaction to the warm glow of the Shabbos candles or the taste of the Matzah, the feeling that somehow the Mitzvah is right, is home, is G-dly, is a healthy foundation for lasting religious observance, and, for a method that banks on an empirically ridiculous claim to a soul, works well.

 

 

Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century and in the words of Freeman Dyson, “[A] famous joker and a famous genius, [but] also a wise human being whose answers to serious questions made sense,” understood this view of intellect. He related the following:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

At first blush it’s a grounded rebuff of artistic fancy by a levelheaded scientist. Not really, though. Implicit is the appreciation of artistic sentiment, that the flower is beautiful not only as a source of knowledge, a specimen to be dissected, but as a mystery, something that exists beyond us that we are allowed to see. And in the end, what is the point of science’s analytical microscope? To bring one to a greater appreciation of the ineffable. The scientist need not dictate terms to reality; on the contrary, through his discoveries, he allows reality to blow his mind. With his peerless grasp of the workings of the body, he touches the exaltation of the spirit. In the words of R’ Saadiah Gaon, the goal of knowledge is to know that He cannot be known.

No bones about it.

Featured Image of Anisopodidae in Amber By EvaK (EvaK) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons