The Currency

They met that Winter in the bowels of the Capitol building in the dead of night. In earlier eras one would have dressed all in white and the other in darkest sable, but things were, for better or worse, different now, and one wore a coat of grey with a cream scarf, and the other pulled off his steak-colored gloves and put them in the pocket of his chocolate jacket. Two men of equal height stared at each other by light of a small desk lamp, and in their eyes burned a famous mutual hatred.

Some time before dawn, one of them must have said something. And what he must have said, cold as empty space, was, “You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” It was in the books. The representatives of the other side loved places of power. The Kremlin, Whitehall, even the now-benign cordons of the Louvre and the mirrored hall of Versailles. They all gave the freaks their jollies.

“On the contrary,” breathed the other. “I can tell that you desire some victory here. Some elevation.” The word skipped out of his throat like a fiery arrow off a stone wall and guttered out in the shadows. “But perhaps not.”

The first man reached into his pocket for the coin (it was his turn) but couldn’t help saying, “You know, we will win in the end; it is prophecy.” He never looked away from the other’s eyes, and he saw buried there the flicker of an alarming fire. He hated prophecy, the first of the old bindings, words that coerced.  Prophecy bothers me as well, he thought, but if he started down that road nothing would ever be accomplished. But prophecy was an old wound. For centuries it had been mostly the coins that annoyed his brother. That annoyed and compelled both of them.

“Come, we must work.”

“My, aren’t you diligent and responsible this evening.”

“The damn coin. Where is it?”

“I seem to have misplaced it,” he said, looking up at his own forehead in feigned absentmindedness.

The man’s coy smile became a sharp axis. “We must leave this place by dawn. Or have you forgotten that as well?” A point, good and true. His brother winced. There was once a time when they could walk in broad daylight, but no longer, and they now both skulked in the dark that had once been a private domain.

The first one produced the coin from his pocket. A standard United States quarter dollar, glinting in the half-light, ready to prise treasure from a gumball machine or line the bed of a Salvation Army kettle. But that evening other things were coming to boil. He handed the coin to his brother for the customary inspection. There was a time when each of them had been very excited by the prospect of double-headed or trick coins, not to mention the methods of alchemy, chemistry, metallurgy, sleight of hand…They had even, once, as part of a nigh-endless waiting, found the coin to mysteriously come up heads every time, free of their tampering. But they were too tired for all that now, as they were too tired for most things, and there was nothing special about the coin. It may as well have, and had, been a doubloon, a silver talent, a rusty kopek.

Like everything, it had two sides.

The man not holding the coin produced from his breast pocket a small notebook whose pages were jammed with block letters that seemed to run in every direction at once. He reminded his brother, “You’re first.”

His brother brought the coin over the wooden desk on which sat the lit lamp. “Read it,” he managed to say.

The man with the notebook peered inside and said, bored, “Shantelle Irving’s labrador will die, hit by some truck in Cincinnati’s employ. She will have neglected to close the door after bringing groceries inside.” The man holding the coin closed his eyes, said a silent prayer, and flipped it. It came up heads.

Both brothers had a nagging feeling, like they had forgotten something, and the something they had forgotten was how to feel emotion at the outcomes, and the brother who had flipped the coin said, “Oh,” while the other marked something with a ballpoint pen in the notebook, and a moment of uneasiness passed between them. It was usually at this point that someone would flee, if they were going to. But both stayed. Fleeing was another one of the things they were tired of. It didn’t change anything. Fate was kind of just fate, you know? one would tell you. It is futile to resist destiny, the other would say, throwing up his hands.

The man holding the notebook picked up the coin and handed the book to his brother, who read, “Okay. Uh, we have here Mrs. Berman, whose lip will be split by her husband, leading to her moving out and the initiation of a divorce that will destroy the lives of her children.” He enumerated the subclauses of the occurrence, sketching out the largest ripples this husband’s terrible decision would cast upon the face of the world. Relatives, property, emotions were all mapped out. The hidden qualia that made up each individual subjective knowledge of the breakup was balanced out like fine architecture. He built, in his mind’s eye, a little cathedral of infinite, complex sorrow. Only one view of the matter, one opinion was left out, and that opinion was acknowledged with a brief glance up at the drop ceiling, whose pseudo-random distribution of holes he was certain he had spoken of before, though of course, he didn’t remember where.

“That’s pretty messed up,” said the other brother, though not in horror or admiration but with the detachment of one whose empathy was long ago stripped raw by the solid iron of his responsibilities. The first brother grunted, but not in assent or disagreement. The coin was thrown. It came up heads. The notebook was marked.

The process continued. The night grew longer, and dawn showed no sign of growing closer. They read and marked and read, but never turned a page in the notebook. The coin determined that, heads, a Mr. Benson of Bern would be winning a lottery, but, tails, his wife would not live to enjoy the wealth.

They judged, one by one, the incidents and people of this world, for good and for bad, the global and the personal. The brothers were infinitely efficient at their unending task but it still took forever. Children’s playground injuries alone took months, not counting attendant fear of doctors that would often result from them. Families were made and unmade; people committed atrocities and wonders, were caught before, during, and after the act. Crimes of passion, and whether by free will those passions would be resisted, were all decided by the coin. The misery of Africa went on and on until they were lost in it, subjugated to it, trapped in its jungles splayed out to all horizons. Revolutions were quashed and successful. Several groups dissolved into selves, and many individuals gave themselves to a cause to die for. The cost of tea in China was discussed; plane crashes and market crashes. The aristotelian epicycles of the angels were all maintained, heads, heads, heads, heads. The bees, their names long and secret, were apportioned their honey. Every ant mound on earth was assigned a destiny, and their collectivist members were named like subdomains, subsets of subsets. Every skipped rock was viewed as a sculpture and its aerodynamics sketched out. The words in dictionaries were counted and their true definitions locked away. One brother followed the course of every electric charge, while the other charted their logic. Together, they left behind man and his all-important story, and, with the flip of their coin, delved into dimensions indescribable and the surging tragedies of the subatomic particles. They chose which mysteries were to be swept behind the event horizon and supped with true love and the final digit of pi. They tallied every notion, every obscurity, every undiscovered and undiscoverable world. Every bullet…

“Forty-nine, eh?”

“Forty-nine.” He yawned.

“I bet you would have loved that, once upon a time.”

“Bet? As in, gamble?” He glared.

“How did bullets end up so close to the end?”

“Who cares? Come, choose the names. We’re almost done.”

They traced the ligaments of a sad story, flipping their coin. The notebook went back-and-forth and its cover remained, despite the millennia of work, cold as the hour. They read, from the same page, all of the names in question. Many were rescued. Forty-nine were not.

“So sad.”

“You wish you were sad.”

“Aha, maybe I do!”

“But you don’t, really, do you?”


“Come. End it.”

Then they turned to all that was left, that is, to themselves.

“Shall we return in six months?” one asked. As always, the coin came up heads. They both sighed.

The other picked up the coin from the desk, made to throw it, hesitated. “Is it even worth asking?” He felt something, deep in his chest. Not a feeling perhaps, but the memory of what one was like whose name was long forgotten.

The other merely raised his eyebrows.

He said, “Am I the one I am thinking of right now?” and gave it an expert flick with his thumb.

The coin did not come back down.

“Again,” said the other resignedly. “Oh well.” He pocketed his notebook and stepped into the shadows.

“Only God knows,” said the other. He turned off the small desk lamp and walked toward a small window at the end of the hallway, losing corporeality in the first rays of dawn, mesmerised by vague memories of the time before the coin. He remembered the victory of massacres and the pain of childbirth, the joy of vengeance and the sorrow of betrayal. He remembered a smattering of decisions. He had fought to choose the stones for gulags and the apples the righteous would eat and the times of death of endless, endless faces. He remembered, and knew that he was powerful, and that the other must be stopped.

But the time for that had passed. The time when he and his brother remembered which of them was Good, and which Evil.



Originally posted on Hevria.

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.