Morte e Satisfação Ao Lado do Tejo

Beneath the needled boughs on the banks of the Tagus. Why ever move again? The air is cool and breezy off the mighty estuary. Gulls croak all around. Behind is the bustle of Lisbon, the distant breath of automotive traffic, the clashing of a pot in a restaurant no-doubt desperate for off-season custom. Today is a good day; it isn’t raining.

Why ever move again? The Ponte Vasco de Gama, longest bridge in Europe, unfurls to my left like a misplaced spasm of Louisiana, a momentary whiff of Pontchartrain and beignets and bayou. The cable car to the oceanarium drifts silently overhead. It is impossible to wonder with anything more than the curiosity of the content whether today they have any takers. Calm waters and limpid skies give way at the horizons to clouds, not the droning omnipresent gray of Sunday but white cotton East toward the rest of Europe, and upriver, future rain-bearers. One of the restaurants has hung chimes which soften the squeaking and clanging of walkers along the promenade, their presence just constant enough to remind me I am not outside of civilization but on the edge of a pocket of peace folded against its loving bosom.

The bridge crosses the river so I don’t have to. Why ever move again?

It is possible to step on the Vacso de Gama bridge and walk to Vladivostok without your feet leaving pavement. But Vladivostok is only an idea in Lisbon, an implausible theory. If I was the bridge, a simple unprepossessing miles-long concrete structure, I could have Russia implicitly. I would in some sense run there at every moment, be there by being in Lisbon, my body my grandfather’s whom I have never met.

But I am not even the bench I am sitting on, nor this pen, nor even the fingers manipulating it. I’m certainly not the distant dirty-snowed port, salmon and cod by the millions failing to warm its air. If I want to cross the river, I have to move. I at the very least have to move my thoughts. But why ever move again?

“Your body will need something eventually,” a voice within threatens. Perhaps. But perhaps I reject the notion. Adam didn’t need in Eden; courageous Korach didn’t need in the wilderness. They were perfect just as they were. Perhaps I will waste away here on the bank of the river, because it is an insult to beauty and G-d’s creation to need anything, a rejection of the lapping waters and the moment in which they lap and all else that fills it. Motion is betrayal. Maybe I will die here with honor, the empty bench remaining as a testament to my discovery of G-d right where I sat.

As the sages or King Solomon might connote, and as I’ve been trying to say for a few paragraphs: existence is suffering. And as father Avraham teaches us, my still death beside the Tagus would itself be a motion, a furthering of my existence, a departure from the non-being I smell within the infinitesimal fraction of here and now.

It is no simple thing to cease to be accessible at your own metaphysical address, to rig your front door so that when they batter it down they meet nothing but G-dliness. An accessible existence is a notoriously difficult thing to dispose of. When Descartes said cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, it was with a note of triumph, having ascertained that there was at least one thing he could not doubt, namely the existence of the one who was doubting, i.e., himself. He should have mourned. The prisoner cannot free himself. Actions grounded in our own knowing are grounded in us and so no matter their apparent valence shall always reinforce our existence.

Martyrdom is no escape. A monk sets himself on fire in protest. His form is lost in the flames; his soul passes from the material realm. His existence is no longer accessible, not as itself…right?

Do we not find the monk’s existence immortalized through his actions? Is he not found, there in the heart of his protest, for all eternity? He has become part of something larger than himself; he has traded a small mortal form for the form of the idea. His existence is now eternally accessible, more easily found. It is a martyrdom of self-extension.

The call sign of this self-perpetuating martyrdom is its logic. The human condition: our “independent” selves are functions of other selves. I’m bigger than little brother but smaller than father, smarter than a fifth grader but dumber than Einstein, a giver to students but a receiver from teachers. The tie that binds, the triangulating system binding us to other nodes in the web of being, is logic.

When the monk sets himself on fire, he does not sweep his locus on the web clean; on the contrary, he ascends to the state of pure logic, his node full of web. “The tenets of my religion define me,” he said before he was burned. “There is nothing here but the tenets of my religion,” he says now.

The node is not empty; it is so full as to merge into its surroundings. A living monk may sever the connections, shift his position, leave Buddhism for atheism or Sikhism. A martyr of self-extension has locked his logic into place. He has moved beyond being a single thing among all finite concatenated things, and become a principle of concatenation, an idea, infinitely more present, undying.

In other words, death and life are not continuing and ceasing to be in this world. Being is to be in the web of logic. Death can reinforce and intensify this being. It is not, itself, an escape.

Avraham is the first to break free of the web, to wrench himself free, to non-be. Our father rebels against all his holy logic by binding Isaac upon the altar. In his mad devotion to G-d he sets aside his beliefs and religion and the extension of his line. When logic tells him “G-d promise a nation through Isaac,” that his son and he are tied by the web, Avraham ties his son and thereby cuts the connection. When logic tells him G-d does not desire human sacrifice, he turns away. When it insists that martyrdom is only for a cause, Avraham is willing to not be a martyr, then. There is no ground for the sacrifice of Yitzchak in what Avraham is. On that mountain he exerts none of his own logic.

Is this not the very inscrutability of G-d made manifest? When Maimonides writes that we cannot even affirmatively say that G-d exists, what he means is that G-d is not a being of the web. He exists only because He is himself, relative to no other thing, and so the verb “to be” means something incommensurately greater in his case. Avraham is only able to be nothing before G-d by dint of the G-dly nothingness within. He is not nothing by external relationship to the Creator (a further web) but by faith, the inner path, a capacity built into his very being.

If he is not defined by any web, what remains is not more of Avraham, but none of him, which is also, absurdly, Avraham— the deepest truth of Avraham, his G-dly truth. He found it not through stillness and death. He found it by riding to the mountain on G-d’s command.

Why ever move? Because it is the only way to stay still. Why abandon this moment here, where the birds of prey swing low on the winds of the continent to hunt the glassy blue waters? It is the only way to keep it.


November. Dusk. Lisbon.
All the demons here
are my own.

A million moorish tiles weeping.
Strangers on the Praça offer hashish and cocaine in stage whispers.
Dark cobbles, dark thoughts.
The square was urbane, European, and soothing
before I learned
from the Bubbe in the purple bonnet
urging me to plunge my youth
into the city
before the single synagogue
is returned by demographics and economics
to the post-Inquisition peace
with the pogrom.
Here they burned the Jews.

All the demons here
are my own.


The Jews of Lisbon saw the waters of the Rio Tejo from the Praça do Comércio before they were burned at the stake. They were no mere martyrs. They were descendants of Abraham, torn from the web, instantiating the inner G-dly void closer to them than any logic or definition.

There was, in the preceding silence, a perfection against which there is no rebelling, a stillness that could not be moved. There were no bodies that hungered, no directions to reach in, no seconds to measure. Why ever move?

Then, a sigh, and there was light.

Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.


*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.

Abraham the Murderer

Abraham is just some cisgender white male kid kicking cans in Silver Springs. He watches YouTube and plays Fortnite religiously but he is still not right. There’s something off about the way he looks at you. He sees too much. His skull can’t hold it all and ugly truths pour from his mouth.

Abraham wants to make his mother proud but never quite manages. Abraham’s father hits him sometimes, so when his dad is out Abraham burns the family business to the ground. Abraham’s father explains what power truly means with the back of his hand and the dull retreat of his mother’s eyes.

Abraham regrets nothing. Abraham’s heart is a coal wreathed in blue flame. Abraham decides it all must die. Abraham’s father stops paying for Wi-Fi and shoots a truancy officer.

Abraham dreams of ways to destroy his father. The moon could smash him, but then it would only come at night. The sun could scorch him, but only by day. The mountain, until it eroded; the cloud, until it dispersed. None of it is enough, he thinks, lying in his own reek, flies trailing lazy arcs across the thatched ceiling. I will kill him myself. That is what a man would do.

But his heart spasms brighter and his mind snaps shut. No. I can hate him only as long as I live. Death must not defeat my hatred. I will find something that endures forever, and etch my father’s punishment in its skin.

In this way, Abraham discovers the One G-d.


Abraham goes through puberty and meets a girl who can love an idea. They move to New Mexico.

“The One G-d is the best idea anyone has ever had,” Abraham tells his clan over Discord. “Even at their best, people will disappoint. People will always leave you doubting yourself. But ideas are sweet and dependable, and the Idea that people can’t understand is the sweetest of all. The Idea is the only indiscriminate and unyielding benevolence.” He takes a pull from his Mountain Dew. “Markets, the news, Odin, whatever your parents worship, it’s rotten with people. The idea never hints that nothing its children do is ever good enough. It is never so starving as to bash in a skull.” Abraham calls everything rank with human sweat an idol.

“How do you know,” asks Jason-who-went-to-college, “that the Idea (over which you seem to have perspired quite a bit) is not just Abraham’s idol?”

Abraham is angry, but he sees the point. People might think G-d is for smashing his enemies alone. Perhaps they would be right. Abraham thinks and thinks during his long walks along the Rio Grande. He decides that, because G-d created Abraham, G-d is not Abraham’s idol. “You are the proof,” he begins telling the nerds who visit his four-doored house. “The Idea cannot be mine any more than The Idea can be yours; that’s how we know It is not an idol. An idol has allegiances. The Idea is yours only like the light is the mirror’s. We reflect.”

On Facebook, Jason marks Abraham as his father, a declaration of fealty.


Abraham grows old nursing his Idea and spreading it. Every night in he dreams of men and women across the States, but they are no longer people. They are abstractions meandering among the squares and triangles, cavorting with loyalty and intransigence, free of selves, free of others. Their faces turn upward toward one light, away from the darkness of cruel arbitrary whim.

One morning, on a whim, G-d says to Abraham, “Hi there.”

Abraham, who has been waxing his Trans Am, about dies. He is angry. He is sad. He is ashamed. The idea, it seems, is suicidal. Abraham turns off the buffer and says, “Did you say something?”

The Idea says, “Don’t be rude, son.”

Abraham thinks for a moment, strokes his tangled beard, sighs. He did say that G-d created Abraham. What you create, you can destroy.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, and steps into history.


“People are not so bad,” Abraham says, lying in bed on night, but what he is thinking is, a son, a son, a son, a son!

Sarah finishes that evening’s prayer, closes Twitter, and places her tablet upon the nightstand. “No,” she says, removing her glasses, thinking, a son, a son! “They aren’t.”

Abraham can barely believe, after so long. But he trusts. G-d has never let him astray. “Are we too old?” he asks bemusedly.

“Let’s find out,” Sarah suggests.


“Do they really deserve it?” Abraham asks the One. Death hangs suspended in the red heavens above the mesas. Sodom seethes below.

“Deserve?” G-d thinks aloud. “Am I some magistrate, bound by ordinances? Am I not the Creator of heaven and earth?”

Abe thinks on this a bit, sweats, and musters the platonic form of all chutzpah. “You are the Creator. That’s why you ought to act justly. Justice is the mortar of your creation. Are you our true Creator, or not? Spare them.”

G-d is pleased as He wipes Sodom clean.

Abraham turns his face and weeps.


Isaac is worth more than an endless eternity of abstractions.

In the curve of his cheek and the spread of his shoulders, Isaac embodies his father every hope. Abraham knows that he himself is not an idea and will someday die. But in his son, the knowledge of G-d on earth will live on.

“Kill him,” G-d says.

We can imagine a different multiverse, in which Abraham is not Abraham. We can imagine a reality in which Abraham is paralyzed, at this moment, by his dreams, but in our universe Abraham is neither a child not a philosopher. His knees are scabbed from prayer and his palms cracked from devotion. G-d is his love, his light, his master, and his sole possession.

His idol.

Abraham gave up people for a dream, and a dream for a Voice in the wilderness. He can give up one more thing.

It’s a long three days, sitting on his ass.

We do not know what he thinks as he rides, but every grain of sand, every streetlight and rented scooter probably seems a mocking agony as he contemplates justice. He demanded justice for sinners, why not for his son? But then, Sodom never trusted.

He probably thinks about his mind, how it wants to rebel, to cry that worship of G-d on earth only survives if Isaac does. He doesn’t let it.

Mostly, I think, he considers his father, and how his own destiny was written, and how nothing changes.

Abraham binds his beautiful son with firm cords upon a lonely altar and prepares for the second murder of the day.

Abraham discovers, there, on the mountain, that G-d is not an idea, nor a person, but something more.

Abraham finds, with a waxing, trumpeting joy, that so is he.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.