Archive for May, 2016


An eye-opening astronomy video—one of many in recent years—has been making the rounds of Facebook. It brings to mind a piece of Hasidic wisdom uttered when the observable universe was far smaller than now. Both pose fascinating questions regarding how we can make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

This particular animated video beautifully demonstrates the nearly unfathomable size of creation. The camera starts on the massive Himalaya Mountains and pulls back to reveal the Himalayas as a small blip on our Earth, itself a fraction of the size of the sun, which is but one among billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, itself one of billions of galaxies. We may know this intellectually, but the video offers a startling perspective. At its end we can’t help wondering how far creation extends and how we can ever truly understand it. We also marvel at our own diminutiveness.

On the religious level, Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1765-1827) presented the paradox of human existence quite in tune with science. He exclaimed that everyone should have two pockets. One should hold a note declaiming, The world was made for me. The other should hold a note stating, I am but dust and ashes.

We can easily take the vastness of creation as a negation of our human worth. But Rabbi Bunim warns against that. In the Torah, God puts human beings at the center of creation. Don’t take that lightly. After all, we can comprehend to a significant degree that same vast universe. We’ve made great headway investigating such incredible forces as gravity and black holes. So while within the known universe, human beings are barely specs, our self-awareness and comprehension encompass the creation that dwarfs us.

Of course, we each have a natural perspective through which the world revolves around our hopes and dreams, accomplishments and failures. This, even as astronomers discover new planets capable of supporting life. Are we really alone? If so, our insignificance and uniqueness become even more pronounced. Still, we live our lives as if the universe were merely an extension of ourselves. This leaves us walking an intellectual tightrope. Not surprisingly, we often lose our balance.

My short story “Beautiful!” (REED Magazine issue 69), which I mentioned last week, deals with this subject. A retired astronaut marks his eightieth birthday. He has seen the earth from a weightless vantage point provided to only a few human beings. Like many astronauts in orbit before him, he exclaimed “Beautiful!”

But as with other astronauts, his elevated view of earth not only stimulated but troubled him. How, he wonders, can we fail to treat our fellow human beings—all of us so small and fragile—with compassion? Why do ego and lust make our brief lives so difficult for ourselves and others? On the other hand, given the size and age of the universe, what difference does it make what we do?

Will “Beautiful!” clear everything up for you? It will disturb as much as enlighten you. Living simultaneously on the macro and micro levels is no easy task. The sum of human misery testifies to that. Giving the matter some thought, however, just might make a difference in the way we struggle through our brief appearance here on tiny Earth.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out Post something on Facebook, too. And this Monday, give a little thought to what Memorial Day really means. May the memories of American forces who gave their all be for a blessing. 

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In New Orleans recently, an African-American cab driver said, “Have a good day, young man.” “Young man” (I’ll be 72 in July) is a term of respect in the Black community. It tickled me, because elders in America don’t get much respect.

Leviticus 19:32 states, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” Generally, that gets little traction. Check out how often young people remain seated in senior-preference seats on San Francisco’s buses. (When offered a seat, I decline. The elderly need seats; I don’t.)

Dave Eggers offers a frightening look at youth chauvinism in his 2014 novel The Circle. A social-media company—a mash-up of Facebook, Apple, Google (Alphabet) and others—has a state-of-the-art Silicon Valley campus in which 30-year-olds are hard to find. The protagonist, a 24-year-old woman—and new employee—thinks 30 is over the hill. One can’t possibly contribute to society when three decades have sapped one’s energy and enthusiasm. But good judgment takes time to develop. The Circle’s increasingly invasive use of social media and related technology—promulgated, interestingly, by two senior executives of late middle age sprouting faux wisdom—threatens not only individual privacy but also sanity.

Granted, elders don’t always keep up with technology. (I call on my 20-year-old great-nephew Matthew.) Yet we have much to offer in terms of values—including thoughts on appropriate uses of technology. We provide perspective earned both by successes and our failures. Employees at The Circle think that enhanced technology automatically makes life better. Elders—and readers of The Circle—know the matter’s not that simple.

Perspective, however, isn’t all roses. Witness my short story “Beautiful!” in REED Magazine issue 69, the literary/arts annual of San Jose State University. I read a few pages Tuesday evening at the edition’s launch at Books Inc. in Mountain View. On his 80th birthday, a former astronaut marvels at how we can leap into space yet can’t—or won’t—provide for the basic needs of much of humanity. Old age and peace don’t always sync. The story’s ending is disturbing for a reason.

Still, while young people can learn from elders, elders must recognize the validity of youthful energy and ambition, and graciously yield their places to the young. Old age, after all, brings limitations—physical, intellectual, emotional. I’m still writing (and, I hope, making sense). I’m fit; I walk four to seven miles a day. But, for example, my night vision has worsened. Last week, we visited our son Yosi in middle Tennessee. He drove us on country roads at night. I’d have driven at half the speed. Actually, I wouldn’t have driven those roads at all. At night, I see 30 to 50 percent less than Yosi. That’s why many elders drive only in the daytime. Oh, and I’m in bed by ten, ten-thirty the latest.

Another caveat: Age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom. Many elders see the world through lenses distorted not only by physical weakening but also a lifetime of intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual limitations. Ignorant young people usually become ignorant seniors.

That said, if I can share any wisdom as another birthday approaches, it’s this: Each year I have fewer answers and more questions. Young people just might want to give that some thought.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out Post something on Facebook, too. And if you have something to say about getting older, let me know. But do it now. Before you forget.

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Who among us does not feel special? See himself or herself at the center of the universe? Think that if everyone does what I do, the world will be a better place? The answer: precious few. Which explains why not only individuals but also nations often come to grief.

The belief that I or “we” are different and thus better seems near universal. In “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Stephen Kotkin of Princeton, and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explains that “Russians have always had an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission — an attitude often traced to Byzantium, which Russia claims as an inheritance.” Essentially, God made Russia spiritually greater than its neighbors. Russian dominance of Eurasia represents the natural order.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite its considerable nuclear arsenal, plays a limited role on the world stage. (For my earlier take on Russia, see “Irrelevance.”) According to Kotkin, Russia shares much with England and France—once great powers—as well as Germany and Japan. The former pair came to terms with the erosion of their prominence. The latter “had their exceptionalism bombed out of them.”

America and China also claim heavenly mandates. This, I propose, is based on ego fostered by historic power. Now, don’t get me wrong. While I oppose the idea of American exceptionalism—which often translates to “we can do no wrong”—I believe that America is an exceptional country. Although exceptional is not a synonym for perfect.

The United States, unlike its European forebears, never saw itself as a tribal or ethnic state. True, some people define real Americans as white Protestants. But the nation ultimately opened its doors to everyone and defined American as citizen. Yes, our history of slavery and racism is shameful. Still, America evolved under the rule of law. If the law has not always been adhered to, it nonetheless has offered great protection to citizens and non-citizens alike. Lack of perfection does not negate great accomplishment.

Exceptionalism can also be claimed on the religious front. I wrote in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters with God in the Hebrew Bible that Christianity and Islam often see themselves as universalistic religions of a particularistic God. Translation: there is only one way to believe, and God loves only adherents of whichever specific faith makes such a claim.

Judaism takes a different stance. It sees its exceptionalism not in being chosen for privilege but for responsibility. Performing the 613 commandments (many impossible since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) does no more to earn a Jew a place in the World to Come (of which there are multiple concepts) than a monotheist who follows the seven Noahide commandments established by the Sages. Judaism thus stands as a particularistic religion—only Jews need follow all 613 commandments—of a universalistic God not concerned about which religion people follow, as long as it’s monotheistic.

During the presidential campaign to come—or at least its final segment—I hope both major candidates will refrain from references to American exceptionalism. Flag waving often conceals a bent for tyranny. Of course, humility is not a trait that impels individuals to seek the White House or voters to put them there. Still, downplaying exceptionalism could help the winner be a better president.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out Post something on Facebook, too. It won’t take an exceptional effort.

The post will take off on May 13 and return on May 20.

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