Bob Schwartz

Category: Holidays

Chinese New Year: Tao Te Ching Chapter 39

The root of the noble is in the common,
the high stands on what’s below.
Princes and kings call themselves
“orphans, widowers, beggars,”
to get themselves rooted in the dirt.
A multiplicity of riches
is poverty.
Jade is praised as precious,
but its strength is being stone.
Ursula Le Guin, Tao Te Ching 39

Playing one’s part
in accordance with the universe
is true humility
So whether you’re a gem in the royal court
or a stone on the common path
If you accept your part with humility
the glory of the universe will be yours
Sam Hamill, Tao Te Ching 39

Therefore, the honored uses the lowly as basis
The higher uses the lower as foundation
Thus the rulers call themselves alone, bereft, and unworthy
Is this not using the lowly as basis? Is it not so?
Therefore, the ultimate honor is no honor
Do not wish to be shiny like jade
Be dull like rocks
Derek Lin, Tao Te Ching 39

It is the Chinese New Year. Here is something randomly selected from the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching—the seminal text of Taoism, one that has served as the first step for many on the path to Asian wisdom.

The selection is Chapter 39 of the 81 chapters. Following are just a few of the countless translations, interpretations and commentaries.

Chapter 39 may be a bit more obscure and less straightforward than some others. The closing theme is humility, particularly the humility of sages and leaders.


Ursula K. Le Guin, Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way

39
Integrity

Those who of old got to be whole:

Heaven through its wholeness is pure;
earth through its wholeness is steady;
spirit through its wholeness is potent;
the valley through its wholeness flows with rivers;
the ten thousand things through their wholeness live;
rulers through their wholeness have authority.
Their wholeness makes them what they are.

Without what makes it pure, heaven would disintegrate;
without what steadies it, earth would crack apart;
without what makes it potent, spirit would fail;
without what fills it, the valley would run dry;
without what quickens them, the ten thousand things would die;
without what authorizes them, rulers would fall.

The root of the noble is in the common,
the high stands on what’s below.
Princes and kings call themselves
“orphans, widowers, beggars,”
to get themselves rooted in the dirt.

A multiplicity of riches
is poverty.
Jade is praised as precious,
but its strength is being stone.


Red Pine, Lao-tzu’s Taoteching

39

Of those that became one in the past
Heaven became one and was clear
Earth became one and was still
spirits became one and were active
valleys became one and were full
kings became one and ruled the world
but from this we can infer
Heaven would crack if it were always clear
Earth would crumble if it were always still
spirits would dissipate if they were always active
valleys would dry up if they were always full
kings would fall if they were always high and noble
for the noble is based on the humble
and the high is founded on the low
thus do kings refer to themselves
as orphaned widowed and destitute
but this isn’t the basis of humility
counting a carriage as no carriage at all
not wanting to clink like jade
they clunk like rocks


William Scott Wilson, Tao Te Ching: A New Translation

39

Of those who obtained
the One along the way in ancient times:
Heaven obtained the One, and became transparent;
Earth obtained the One, and became pacified;
The spirits obtained the One, and
were imbued with the essential mystery of things;
The valleys obtained the One, and were filled to the brim;
The Ten Thousand Things obtained the One,
and sprouted with life;
Lords and kings obtained the One,
and divined how to make the world correct.
It was the One that guided them along.

If Heaven were not transparent,
I’m afraid it would soon be rent like cloth.
If Earth were not pacified,
I’m afraid it would soon begin to shake.
If the spirits were not imbued with
the essential mystery of things,
I’m afraid they would soon not bother to exert themselves.
If the valleys were not filled to the brim,
I’m afraid they would soon be dried up.
If the Ten Thousand Things did not sprout with life,
I’m afraid they would soon become parched and wither.
If lords and kings were not respected and on high,
I’m afraid they would soon stumble and fall.
Thus, that which is of little value creates
the foundation for that which is treasured,
And that which is low creates
a bedrock for that which is high.
Therefore, lords and kings call
themselves orphans, widowers, and menials.
Is this not making what is of little value the foundation?
Is this not so?
Thus, though you may often be awarded words of praise,
you will have no honor.
Do not wish to jangle like jewels;
Rather, resonate like rocks and stones.


Jonathan Star, Tao Te Ching: The New Translation

Verse 39

From ancient times till now
the One has been the source of all attainments
By realizing the One
Heaven becomes clear, Earth becomes still
spirits gain power and hearts fill up with joy
By realizing the One
kings and lords become instruments of peace
and all creatures live joyfully upon this earth
Without the One
Heaven has no clarity and would crack
Earth has no peace and would crumble
spirits have no power and would lose their charm
Without the One
hearts would dry up, empires would fall,
all things would go lifelessly upon this earth

Long ago kings and lords called themselves
“orphaned,” “lonely,” and “unworthy”
What honor can there be without humility?
What heights can be reached without being low?
The pieces of a chariot are useless
unless they work in accordance with the whole
A man’s life brings nothing
unless he lives in accordance with the whole universe
Playing one’s part
in accordance with the universe
is true humility
So whether you’re a gem in the royal court
or a stone on the common path
If you accept your part with humility
the glory of the universe will be yours


Sam Hamill, Tao Te Ching: A New Translation

39

Since ancient days, these attained oneness:
heaven attained unity and grew clear;
earth attained unity and grew tranquil;
souls attained unity and grew powerful;
valleys attained unity and produced abundance;
all beings became one and gave life;
rulers attained oneness and rule grew virtuous.
If heaven were not clear,
it would crumble;
earth without tranquility
would shatter.
Souls without power
would soon dissipate.
Valleys without abundance
are quickly exhausted.
Rulers without esteem
can be toppled.
Thus the noble is rooted in the humble,
the high founded upon the low.
Rulers call themselves orphans, widowers, destitute.
Isn’t humility at the root?
Hence they count many carriages
while disdaining their prestige.
Not wanting to tinkle and chime like jade,
they clatter, falling like stones.


Derek Lin, Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained

39

Those that attained oneness since ancient times:
The sky attained oneness and thus clarity
The earth attained oneness and thus tranquility
The gods attained oneness and thus divinity
The valley attained oneness and thus abundance
The myriad things attained oneness and thus life
The rulers attained oneness and became the standard for the world
These all emerged from oneness

The sky, lacking clarity, would break apart
The earth, lacking tranquility, would erupt
The gods, lacking divinity, would vanish
The valley, lacking abundance, would wither
Myriad things, lacking life, would be extinct
The rulers, lacking standard, would be toppled

Therefore, the honored uses the lowly as basis
The higher uses the lower as foundation
Thus the rulers call themselves alone, bereft, and unworthy
Is this not using the lowly as basis? Is it not so?
Therefore, the ultimate honor is no honor

Do not wish to be shiny like jade
Be dull like rocks

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St. Rafqa’s Knit Haiku

For my beautiful and beloved knitter

St. Rafqa’s Knit Haiku

Who needs the arrows
of Valentine when we knit
with Rafqa’s needles

Note: I went looking for the Catholic patron saint of knitters—there’s usually an official or unofficial saint for everything—only to discover that there is no consensus about knitting. Suggestions include Saints Fiachra/Fiacre, Rafqa/Rebecca, Dymphna, Lucy, Ursula, Sebastian or Blaise. The idea was to connect the arrows of St. Valentine to the needles of St. Whoever. The haiku idea comes from having found the Japanese Knitting Stitch Bible as a gift for a knitter. All in all, a pretty long explanation for a pretty obscure poem. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Shabbat and International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Shabbat. Today is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Sabbath is a celebration, compared to a wedding day. The Holocaust is not. A paradox, perhaps.

From The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Sabbath is a bride, and its celebration is like a wedding.

“We learn in the Midrash that the Sabbath is like unto a bride. Just as a bride when she comes to her groom is lovely, bedecked and perfumed, so the Sabbath comes to Israel lovely and perfumed, as it is written: And on the Seventh Day He ceased from work and He rested (Exodus 31:17), and immediately afterwards we read: And He gave unto Moses kekalloto [the word kekalloto means when he finished, but it may also mean] as his bride, to teach us that just as a bride is lovely and bedecked, so is the Sabbath lovely and bedecked; just as a groom is dressed in his finest garments, so is a man on the Sabbath day dressed in his finest garments; just as a man rejoices all the days of the wedding feast, so does man rejoice on the Sabbath; just as the groom does no work on his wedding day, so does a man abstain from work on the Sabbath day; and therefore the Sages and ancient Saints called the Sabbath a bride.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

Nowhere in all of our obligations are we asked to make sense of things. Celebrate? Yes. Remember? Yes. Make sense of things? That would be a miracle.

And speaking of miracles, from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach:

A Kvitl on the Frankfurter’s Grave

RABBI ISRAEL PERLOW (1869–1922), KNOWN AS THE BABE OF KARLIN-Stolin, was one of the most famous Hasidic rabbis of Lithuanian Hasidism. He became a Hasidic leader at the age of four when his father, Rabbi Ascher of Karlin, passed away. Rabbi Israel was a scholar, a fine composer, and had a commanding knowledge of the sciences. He died in Frankfurt an Main during one of his many travels and was buried there. After his death he was sometimes referred to as the Frankfurter. Despite the desecration of many Jewish cemeteries in Nazi Germany, the rabbi’s grave was never vandalized.

After liberation, Germany became the center for displaced persons. Most of them were people who had been liberated from the concentration camps; the others were those who came to seek possible survivors of their families and ways to emigrate to Palestine and America. Among the many refugees were a handful of Hasidim from Karlin-Stolin. For them, the Frankfurter’s grave was a source of strength and solace.

One day a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who, along with his son, had been fortunate enough to survive the horrors of the war, came to pray at the rabbi’s grave. He placed a pebble on the gravestone as is customary, and said a few chapters of Psalms. Then he poured out his heart before the holy grave, begging the Frankfurter that his holiness would intercede with the Almighty so that his son would find a proper mate, befitting a pious young man. As is also customary, he wrote his son’s name and his request on a piece of paper, folded the kvitl neatly, and placed it in one of the crevices of the tombstone. The Hasid left the Frankfurter’s grave in high spirits, sure that his prayers and request would be answered.

A few days later another Hasidic Jew, also a Karlin-Stolin Hasid, made his way to Frankfurt to the Babe of Stolin’s grave. Like the thousands before him, he told his bitter tale and asked the rabbi’s blessing. He too was fortunate, more than many others. Though he had lost almost his entire family, one daughter of marriageable age survived. He prayed now on his daughter’s behalf, that she should meet a Jewish boy who would find favor in the eyes of God and men, and if possible, also be a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin. As he was about to write his request, he realized that he did not have anything to write on. Just then a gentle wind blew and a piece of paper fluttered to his feet. He picked up the paper and wrote his request in the customary manner. As he was about to fold the kvitl, he noticed that the other side also had writing on it. It was the kvitl of none other than the first Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who had appeared earlier.

A few days later, a wedding took place in a D.P. camp in Germany. The two young people whose fathers had prayed on the zaddik’s grave were united in matrimony. And so you see that the miracles of the Frankfurter Rebbe do not cease unto this very day.

Eve

Eve

Here it is yesterday
There it is tomorrow next year
Here it is winter
There it will be summer yesterday
An imaginary line spins
Centrifugating billions
Into celebration contemplation
Sleep quiet or restless
The sun laughs
The stars abide

©

Christmas Quiz: What’s Different About This Picture?

If you look closely at the painting above, you may notice something unusual about the adoring Magi.

The painting, Adoration of the Magi, is attributed to Vasco Fernandes (ca. 1480–ca. 1543). I’ve shown it to a number of people this Christmas, who all remarked that it is beautiful, but did not comment on anything else.

Can you see what it is unusual about it? If you know or think you do, don’t look first at the answer below.

 


 

Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (2010) by Brent Landau is the first-ever complete English translation of what purports to be a first-person account by the Magi themselves. Written sometime before the fifth century, it is not actually a chronicle by the Magi, but it is a spiritually fascinating addition to the usual Christmas story.

Landau writes:

The Revelation of the Magi, mostly narrated by the Magi in the first person, is a sweeping and imaginative work that begins in the Garden of Eden and ends with the Magi being baptized at the hands of the Apostle Thomas. These Magi are members of an ancient mystical order and reside in a semimythical land called Shir, located in the extreme east of the world, at the shore of the Great Ocean. The Revelation of the Magi says these individuals are called “Magi” in the language of their country because they pray in silence. The story implies that the name “Magi” is thus a play on the words silence and/or prayer, but that implication does not make sense in any of the most common languages spoken by early Christians. Despite this unsolved mystery, however, this description sharply distinguishes the Magi of this story from any of the most common ancient usages of the term magoi: these Magi are not magicians, astrologers, or even priests of the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism.

These mystics, who live in a mysterious, far-off land, as the Revelation of the Magi depicts its Magi, are the descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth was believed by many early Jews and Christians to be extremely pious and virtuous, so it is very fitting for the Revelation of the Magi to trace the ancestry of the Magi back to such an illustrious founder. The Magi inherited from Seth a prophecy of supreme importance for the world: a star of indescribable brightness will someday appear, heralding the birth of God in human form. Seth himself had learned about this prophecy from his father, Adam, since the star originally had hovered over the Tree of Life, illumining all of Eden, before Adam’s sin caused the star to vanish.

Every month of every year, for thousands of years, the order of the Magi has carried out its ancient rituals in expectation of this star’s arrival. They ascend their country’s most sacred mountain, the Mountain of Victories, and pray in silence at the mouth of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, where Seth’s own prophetic books are housed and read by the Magi. Whenever one of the Magi dies, his son or one of his close relatives takes his place, and their order continues through the ages.

All of this lore about the origins of the Magi and their prophecy has been narrated, we are told, by the generation of the Magi that was alive to witness the coming of the star. They have gathered together to ascend the Mountain of Victories, as was their ancient custom, but suddenly the foretold star appears in the heavens. As promised, the star is indescribably bright, so bright that the sun becomes as faint as the daytime moon; yet because the Magi alone are worthy of guarding this prophecy, the star can be seen by no one but them. The star descends to the peak of the mountain and enters the Cave of Treasures, bidding the Magi to come inside. The Magi enter the cave and bow before the star, whose incredible light gradually dissipates to reveal a small, luminous human! This “star-child” reveals to the Magi that he is the Son of God, but—and this is of crucial importance—never calls himself by the familiar names Jesus or Christ. Nor do the Magi themselves ever call him by these names, and the absence of these designations will provide us with a critical clue about the central message of the Revelation of the Magi.

The star-child instructs the Magi to follow it to Jerusalem so that they may witness its birth and participate in the salvation God has planned for the entire world….

The Revelation of the Magi even influenced the way explorers of the New World understood the indigenous cultures they encountered. Two examples will suffice. First, there is the seventeenth-century Augustinian monk Antonio de la Calancha, who studied the Incan culture of Peru. He was impressed by the similarities between Andean traditional religion and Christianity, and he believed that the Apostle Thomas and the Magi must have missionized the region together, just as the Opus Imperfectum indicated. Second, the Franciscan missionary and historian Juan de Torquemada described the belief among some of the Aztecs that the conquistador Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl with recourse to this legend. Just as the Magi had stood atop the Mountain of Victories awaiting the fulfillment of their prophecy, Torquemada notes, so, too, did the Aztecs anxiously await the foretold return of Quetzalcoatl, and were all too willing to accept Cortés as the returned Quetzalcoatl when Spanish ships appeared off the Mexican coast.

And that is the story of how, in this painting, one of the Magi appears as a Native American.

Pope Francis: Change the Rules of the Socio-Economic System

“We must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system. Imitating the Good Samaritan of the Gospel is not enough. An entrepreneur who is only a Good Samaritan does half of his duty: he takes care of today’s victims, but does not curtail those of tomorrow. It is simple to give a part of the profits, without embracing and touching the people who receive those ‘crumbs’. This can never be said enough — capitalism continues to produce discarded people whom it would then like to care for. ”
Pope Francis

The news in America this Christmas is dominated by talk about taxes and the economy. So it is appropriate that my Christmas message come from a speech about economics given by Pope Francis on 1 April 2017.


Greed, which by no coincidence is a capital sin, is the sin of idolatry because the accumulation of money per se becomes the aim of one’s own actions.

When capitalism makes the seeking of profit its only purpose, it runs the risk of becoming an idolatrous framework, a form of worship. The ‘goddess of fortune’ is increasingly the new divinity of a certain finance and of the whole system of gambling which is destroying millions of the world’s families, and which you rightly oppose. This idolatrous worship is a surrogate for eternal life. Individual products (cars, telephones …) get old and wear out, but if I have money or credit I can immediately buy others, deluding myself of conquering death….

Today, many initiatives, public and private, are being carried out to combat poverty. All this, on the one hand, is a growth in humanity. In the Bible, the poor, orphans, widows, those ‘discarded’ by the society of those times, were aided by tithing and the gleaning of grain. But most of the people remained poor; that aid was not sufficient to feed and care for everyone. There were many ‘discarded’ by society. Today we have invented other ways to care for, to feed, to teach the poor, and some of the seeds of the Bible have blossomed into more effective institutions than those of the past. The rationale for taxes also lies in this solidarity, which is negated by tax avoidance and evasion which, before being illegal acts, are acts which deny the basic law of life: mutual care.

But — and this can never be said enough — capitalism continues to produce discarded people whom it would then like to care for. The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are no longer seen. A serious form of poverty in a civilization is when it is no longer able to see its poor, who are first discarded and then hidden.

Aircraft pollute the atmosphere, but, with a small part of the cost of the ticket, they will plant trees to compensate for part of the damage created. Gambling companies finance campaigns to care for the pathological gamblers that they create. And the day that the weapons industry finances hospitals to care for the children mutilated by their bombs, the system will have reached its pinnacle.

The economy of communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full.

Therefore, we must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system. Imitating the Good Samaritan of the Gospel is not enough. Of course, when an entrepreneur or any person happens upon a victim, he or she is called to take care of the victim and, perhaps like the Good Samaritan, also to enlist the fraternal action of the market (the innkeeper)….An entrepreneur who is only a Good Samaritan does half of his duty: he takes care of today’s victims, but does not curtail those of tomorrow….

Capitalism knows philanthropy, not communion. It is simple to give a part of the profits, without embracing and touching the people who receive those ‘crumbs’. Instead, even just five loaves and two fishes can feed the multitude if they are the sharing of all our life. In the logic of the Gospel, if one does not give all of himself, he never gives enough of himself.

 

Christmas for Refugees

How could you say to me,
“Off to the hills like a bird!
For, look, the wicked bend back the bow,
they fix to the string their arrow
to shoot from the gloom at the upright.
The foundations destroyed,
what can a righteous man do?”
Psalms 11:1-2 (Robert Alter translation)

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,
Matthew 1:13-14 (NRSV)

The wicked bend back the bow. The innocent flee. Give this Christmas to the UNHCR.

A Hanukkah Gift from Isaac Bashevis Singer

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet—whom Plato banned from his Republic—may rise up to save us all.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize Lecture (1978)

Among his many incomparable stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer left a number that take place at Hanukkah. I had planned to excerpt one of those as a Hanukkah gift—his gift to us.

But then I came across the lecture he gave when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. I’ve included an excerpt below. It is a bit long, but with eight days of Hanukkah, you could just read one paragraph each night.

If you are someone who writes, as a profession or a passion, you naturally wonder whether you are wasting your time, or worse, wasting the time of your readers. Singer suggests maybe not.

Happy Hanukkah!


The Nobel Prize in Literature 1978
Isaac Bashevis Singer – Nobel Lecture
8 December 1978

The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation. All the dismal prophecies of Oswald Spengler have become realities since the Second World War. No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feeling of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him.

In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.

As the son of a people who received the worst blows that human madness can inflict, I must brood about the forthcoming dangers. I have many times resigned myself to never finding a true way out. But a new hope always emerges telling me that it is not yet too late for all of us to take stock and make a decision. I was brought up to believe in free will. Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution. Even though I learned to recognize the lies, the clichés and the idolatries of the human mind, I still cling to some truths which I think all of us might accept some day. There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God – a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.

I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives – philosophical, religious, aesthetical and even social. In the history of old Jewish literature there was never any basic difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life.

Some of my cronies in the cafeteria near the Jewish Daily Forward in New York call me a pessimist and a decadent, but there is always a background of faith behind resignation. I found comfort in such pessimists and decadents as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, and Strindberg. My interest in psychic research made me find solace in such mystics as your Swedenborg and in our own Rabbi Nachman Bratzlaver, as well as in a great poet of my time, my friend Aaron Zeitlin who died a few years ago and left a literary inheritance of high quality, most of it in Yiddish.

The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet – whom Plato banned from his Republic – may rise up to save us all.

The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Cabala. The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism. As such it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it. I was brought up among those people. My father’s home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets. As a child I had heard from my older brother and master, I. J. Singer, who later wrote The Brothers Ashkenazi, all the arguments that the rationalists from Spinoza to Max Nordau brought out against religion. I have heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation. To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical. One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.

There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

https://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1517

Be an American Maccabee

This Hanukkah in America we are all called to be Maccabees. Not only Jews, but everyone.

Our highest values are under siege, from powerful outside forces and from our own choices. We aren’t necessarily certain of our own values. We are busy and distracted. We don’t know how to respond. It is inconvenient and risky. What if we make things worse for ourselves? What if we lose? Even when the temple is desecrated, we may stand by and feel helpless.

Jews among all people know this situation. Instead of standing by we stand up. The history is mixed and messy, the results not always ideal. But since days of old we do it because we are called.

This Hanukkah in America the lights are still burning, if dimming. We can’t depend on others, or even God, to make sure the lights don’t go out. That is up to us, the Maccabees.

Bodhi Day Is Here Again

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

December 8 is Bodhi Day, commemorating the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha

It is marked in many ways. Some communities hold multi-day sesshins for practice and ceremonies. Some individuals sit all night the night before. There are many sorts of celebrations across the Buddhist world.

A blog post invites different opportunities, including images, videos, sounds and, of course, words. There are plenty of texts to choose from—Buddhist and not-Buddhist, wise and not-wise.

I considered including a Buddha joke or cartoon. Not that I know any off the top of my mind, but it turns out there are lots online. I have always loved jokes featuring religious figures, such as, “Moses, Jesus and Buddha go golfing…” (You will have to finish that one yourself.)

Then there is always silence, the one-size-fits-all Buddhist message.

This Bodhi Day, I gifted myself a bodhi tree, just like the one that the Buddha was sitting under when he was enlightened. Almost just like it. This bonsai ficus religiosa (above) is about 8 inches high, so I will not be sitting under it. Or on it.

I can’t leave this post without letting the Buddha speak for himself. This is from the Dhammapada, a brief (423 verses in 26 chapters) collection of the sayings of the Buddha, the most succinct summary of the heart of Buddhism.

In keeping with the power of randomness, even on (or especially on) Bodhi Day, this is a random chapter from the Dhammapada:

ONE
Dichotomies

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

Whoever lives
Focused on the pleasant,
Senses unguarded,
Immoderate with food,
Lazy and sluggish,
Will be overpowered by Māra,
As a weak tree is bent in the wind.

Whoever lives
Focused on the unpleasant,
Senses guarded,
Moderate with food,
Faithful and diligent,
Will not be overpowered by Māra,
As a stone mountain is unmoved by the wind.

Whoever is defiled
And devoid of self-control and truth,
Yet wears the saffron robe,
Is unworthy of the saffron robe.

Whoever has purged the defilements,
Is self-controlled, truthful,
And well established in virtue,
Is worthy of the saffron robe.

Those who consider the inessential to be essential
And see the essential as inessential
Don’t reach the essential,
Living in the field of wrong intention.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the inessential as inessential
Reach the essential,
Living in the field of right intention.

As rain penetrates
An ill-thatched house,
So lust penetrates
An uncultivated mind.

As rain does not penetrate
A well-thatched house,
So lust does not penetrate
A well-cultivated mind.

One who does evil grieves in this life,
Grieves in the next,
Grieves in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own defiled acts brings grief and affliction.

One who makes merit rejoices in this life,
Rejoices in the next,
Rejoices in both worlds.
Seeing one’s own pure acts brings joy and delight.

One who does evil is tormented in this life,
Tormented in the next,
Is tormented in both worlds.
Here he is tormented, knowing, “I have done evil.”
Reborn in realms of woe, he is tormented all the more.

One who makes merit is delighted in this life,
Delighted in the next,
Is delighted in both worlds.
Here she is delighted, knowing, “I have made merit.”
Reborn in realms of bliss, she delights all the more.

One who recites many teachings
But, being negligent, doesn’t act accordingly,
Like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
Does not attain the benefits of the contemplative life.

One who recites but a few teachings
Yet lives according to the Dharma,
Abandoning passion, ill will, and delusion,
Aware and with mind well freed,
Not clinging in this life or the next,
Attains the benefits of the contemplative life.

The Dhammapada translated by Gil Fronsdal