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When am I?

            When I was thirteen years old, my family moved. My new neighbor, Howie Friedman, introduced me to marijuana and teen boredom, possibly not in that order. His parents were trendier than mine so they had cable television, a novelty in those days, and a refrigerator stocked with cool condiments. We would get stupid and lounge in front of his TV, eating mustard sandwiches, too stoned to move. One day, his mother came home and I guess she was disgusted at our condition. She snapped at me, “Is this what you are going to do with your life?” I looked up, unable to do more than move my head, and said in total innocence, “Of course not. I am going to write a novel.” We could leave this as being a typical teen stoner story but for one major point. After listening carefully to other people and watching me carefully, it has become my belief that people know what their life is going to be. We all already know our own futures down to the tiniest details. I feel like I have double vision. I can almost see time as one big reality; past, present and future rolled up into one big ball of yarn. In order to operate on an ever-day basis, I have to block that out and see time as a line, one half stretched out behind me, solid and unchanging, the other half stretching forward invisibly into the future. I know that to be inaccurate for several reasons; however I need to generate that illusion in order to appear sane to those around me.
I think we hide prescience from ourselves for various reasons. Maybe we want to be surprised. Life is more fun that way. But I think there is more. I remember reading a Justice League comic book in which the superheroes had dreams showing them what the villains would do. They each cut straight to the end, trying to thwart the villains before they had a chance to implement their strategies. It ended up backfiring. The superheroes succeeded in the end but knowing what was going to happen really just messed them up. It got me thinking. If I could see my whole life laid out before me in absolute detail, what would that do for me? Would it help me succeed? Actually, no. What it might do is help me appreciate certain things more than others. As Ursula LeGuin wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness when telling about prescience, foretelling the future is useful only to show the utter futility of knowing the correct answer to the wrong question. When I read a biography of a genius or artist that suffered years of rejection and failure, the happy ending puts the failure into an entirely different perspective, making it seem like part of the success. But it doesn’t really lessen the actuality of years of waking up depressed. And the fact is that for every success story there are millions of people who struggle and fail.

I also think that the infinite reality model as put forth by quantum physics is a “Duh, what did you think it could be?” scenario. I don’t trust my own perception of the past. It is no more real than the future and I have less control over it. People are okay with that when they think about the future but I think it may be for the wrong reasons. They think ‘Well, of course. I have infinite decisions, infinite choice. So each moment is a possible change.’ That isn’t my understanding of infinite reality. I understand it as every moment being a link with an infinite number of realities, all of them real. And also for my past. Each moment was a link with an infinite number of possibilities that never ceased to exist just because I think I acted a certain way. Gee, maybe there really is a me that followed through with that dream I had when I bought my first guitar and I am actually a former rock star burnt out on wine and women. That would explain a lot. I recently watched a video lecture by Kathryn Schulz on being wrong. She described an experiment where a leading expert in memory, the day after the space shuttle disaster, asked a large number of people to write down major points of the story and their personal experience. Three years later, he asked them to recall the details. Fewer than seven percent of the second reports matched the initial ones. Half of them were wrong in two thirds of their claims. One quarter of the second reports was wrong in every major detail. She takes this to mean that our memories are faulty to a shocking degree. I understood it to be an effect of the multiple reality experience. The details I remember are accurate, just not for this line of reality. The fact that we all experience it, makes forgetfulness a valid excuse and makes it possible for us to live together, despite coming from entirely separate threads of reality.

So how does this relate to prayer? Prayer is necessarily a non-time bound mitzvah. Prayer is a process of stepping outside of time in order to find ourselves. We do this by connecting to the infinite. The gemmara seems to say that we should pray all the time, yet in another place it says we should pray at a point of danger. This is a double contradiction. If we are always praying, how can we all of a sudden start praying at the point of danger? And, how can we pray all the time? The answer is, we are always in a danger and prayer is not an act but, rather, a state of being. I think the action of prayer is many things, as well. I love watching Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof talking to God like an imaginary friend. It is, quite literally, awesome. I think it is also like Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Many years ago, I was working as a medic and armed guard for tour groups. My first day on the job was accompanying an American teen group in the Machtesh near Arad. The first day, we woke up at four in the morning to hike into the desert with Yisrael Chevroni, to greet the sun with meditation. We walked all morning, climbed to the top of a mountain, and stood, out of breath and tired, while he led us through a meditation. “Pick a spot in front of you, in the desert. Imagine how you feel, what you are wearing, what you see around you. How did you get there? Where are you going? Who is with you? How did they get there? Where are they going?” The meditation went on for an hour. By the end, I was audibly crying. I often feel lost in my own life. It is an almost daily experience. I wonder if people who have a life plan and follow go through this pain. For better or worse, at some forgotten point, I chose not to follow that path. So here I am, stuck with myself, lost and alone in eternity. Prayer helps me find myself, the infinitesimal point in time that is the ‘now’, flickering in and out of existence, the glittering grain of sand in the rolling desert of eternity.


The Problem with Rabbis Today

                I’d like to spend some time talking about prayer. And I really mean talking. As in discussion. As in, two mouths but four ears. I really need as much feedback as possible and I reserve the right to say at a future date that any of the statements I am making right now are wrong and I have reconsidered them, and that I now think differently. All comments can be made to this blog site or to my email at I am in a process.
                I have recently begun relearning some of the sources in the gemarra and understand there are two sources for prayer, or perhaps more accurately, two types of prayer. The original source for prayer originates in the torah and is illustrated by personal example. We learn that Abrahm, Isaac, and Jacob, prayed. We also see that Hanna was, in many ways, the pinnacle of prayer. For those of you who have read my book, Hanna the milk maid was based on Hannah the biblical character. Also for those who read my novel, The Hope Merchant, the book begins with a morning prayer and ends with a prayer upon going to sleep (actually, in preparation for death, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t read the book). Biblical prayer is a non-time bound mitzvah. I would like to take that one step further and say that the act of prayer connects timefullness with timelessness.
                Before I go into that, I would like to discuss what rabbinic prayer is and why it isn’t biblical prayer. The concept of “Rabbi” as we have come to know it is not a Jewish concept. In Halachic literature, the term “Rabbi” is derogatory, meaning someone who serves as a leader for enlightened communities, i.e. Conservative, Reform, or any of the other non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. These people served as religious leaders though they were not necessarily well-versed in classical Jewish learning. In the traditional Jewish communities, the Rabbi was learned, acting as a teacher and interpreter of Jewish law. In the enlightenment, the Jewish communities wanted to blend into the Christian mainstream culture, so they created a position that was more similar to the Christian priest than the traditional Jewish Rabbi. The Rabbi was never supposed to be a prayer leader. In traditional synagogues, the prayer leader is practically anyone, usually chosen on the spot, with preference given to mourners. The Christian priest was a prayer leader, an intermediary between man and God. Judaism does not have a tradition of an intermediary or prayer leader. The concept of a professional prayer leader is foreign to Judaism. I am raising this issue so that my next statement will not be misunderstood.
                Torah authorities from just after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem established prayer in place of the temple sacrifices. That is actually more problematic than it sounds. There already was a tradition of prayer and it was in no way connected to the temple or sacrifices. The temple service was a public ceremony with strict guidelines. There was a caste system in place, separating Israel into familial groups with specific functions and places in the service. The temple service was separate from torah learning and the political system. After the Hasmonean uprising, the family of priests entered into politics with disastrous results. When the sages established prayer in place of the temple service, remnants of the priest’s role were retained but there was never any connection made between torah learning and the temple service or prayer. There are several cases in the gemarra describing the tension between priests and learned men. Even when they established prayer as a surrogate for temple service, the priests were not designated as prayer leaders. Neither were the learned men of the community. I believe it is because even as a surrogate for temple service, the sages recognized that prayer is a separate discipline, requiring different skills and serving a different purpose. Learning also serves a different purpose and is a separate discipline in no way connected to prayer. When the sages connected prayer and temple service it was so that the temple service would not be forgotten during the exile. It was, essentially, a mismatch. The two activities are in no way connected or similar. Temple sacrifice requires functionaries and a leader, and it is public. Having a prayer leader is counterproductive to biblical Jewish prayer. Prayer is a solitary effort and should not be done as a group.
 There are several necessary aspects of Judaism that confuse me. They don’t seem necessary for my personal struggle to connect to God. Why is religion passed down from your parents? A caste system seems barbaric. Women, for the most part, are treated in an egalitarian manner, but they are excluded from being witnesses. All these, and more, are points that confuse me. But the most confusing is how the sages connected two activities that serve such different purposes. And how did the Rabbis insert themselves into the temple service and prayer, a position for which they are not equipped, designated, nor is there a tradition in prayer of such a position?

In my next blog, I would like to begin to investigate what I understand biblical prayer to be. I will need a lot of help with that.


Wishing Manual

Instructions for wishing
The cover of the book promises a free wish with every purchase. The promise is real. Make a wish. Are you disappointed? Does that seem too simple? It’s really not. Allow me to explain. The simple act of wishing is actually very complex. Unfortunately, the fine art of wishing has been lost. It takes practice and must be learned. There are several components to a successful wish.
The least important thing about a wish is having it fulfilled. The wish itself has great value. A wish declares who you are, stabbing your pennant into the ground, declaring that here you stand, against all odds. After the day is done, when the belly has been fed, what is still left whispering in our ears as we lay in bed, is our souls’ hunger in this world. Western culture has dealt with our body’s needs, leaving us wantless, leaving our souls abandoned and starved. Many people have taken this one step further and become wishless, forgetting the heart and soul. Yet they are confused when their hunger continues after the body has been fed. So they seek more for the body, not understanding the soul’s source of hunger after the body is sated.
Man was created to want, because wanting creates a relationship. The relationship is the main thing. A child needs his father to give, and that creates the closest relationship. But society, in fear, has taken care of our needs, lining the highways with fast food dispensaries so that no one need go more than ten minutes without quick and easy access to food. Our needs have been replaced with a staggering array of wants. So we go shopping for wishes, see some shiny gadget on the internet and saying “Gee, I guess that’s what I want.”, when ten minutes ago we were living a perfectly fine life without it and humanity has stumbled along for ages without it. The want was manufactured, designed in. The wanting isn’t ours so the item will never fulfill our personal wishes. We will still be hungry, so when next year’s fashion or new thing comes around, we throw away what we were convinced to want last year and run after what was designed for us to want this year.
The first step towards a wish is to ask, “What do you want?” This question asks who you are. The answer may surprise you. I know it surprised me. When I wrote the free wish offer, I knew all the smarties would say, “I wish for one hundred more wishes”. Okay. You got it. You are the person who doesn’t have one special wish. You are the person who wanted a lot, but nothing really special. You are the person who wanted ‘more’. When a husband wishes for diamonds to give to his wife, the wish is worth more than the diamonds themselves. When an artist wishes for his art to live, his wish connects him to the infinite. Say your wish out loud. Does it say who you are? Can you live with your wish, cherish it, nurture it, watch it grow? The process is part of the wish, part of the gift. Climbing a mountain is a wish. Suddenly appearing at the top of a mountain is pointless. Look at someone you love. Do you know what their wish would be? Do you know who they are? Will you visit them in their garden of wishes?
The second component of a successful wish is to know what you want to wish for. The problem is that we are not used to asking that question. I have always felt overwhelmed by this question. Advertising is an enormous industry based on telling us what we want. How can you fight that, filter out the millions of messages being beamed directly into our consciousness? How can you wipe all that out and find yourself, your own, personal and unique wants, under that heap of commercial driven goop? Also, to keep the system working, we have relinquished our wants into the hands of others, wish experts. They know what we want. It used to be that if you wanted a chair, you picked up your tools and built it, bringing your own personal wish of a chair into existence. It fit you. Aaah, but you say today’s chairs are “better”. Perhaps. But it is not the chair I wished for. It is the chair the builder wished for. The process of “I wish”, “I envision”, “I create”, and “Here it is, here I am”, is different than simply buying something that someone else created. Making your visions real enlarges the inner-self, making an outer reality to match the inner vision, connecting you with the world by bringing more of you into it. The chair that I have built is my dream made real.
The final step of wishing is to ask. The difference between wishing and wanting is that wishing is asking the world for your dream to come into existence. Wanting takes away from the world, trapping a part of it and leaving just you. Wishing is asking, creating a giving relationship, connecting.
Please allow me to tell you a story. There was once a king who became angry at his son, the prince, banishing him from the palace and his kingdom. After many years, the king regretted his anger and wanted to return his son to the palace. He sent a knight to find him. After a long search, the noble knight found the prince living in a distant forest. The son had spent those long years living in poverty, sleeping outdoors, eating whatever he could find in the forest. His clothes were rags and his body was covered with sores. The knight was overjoyed when he found the prince. He explained his mission to the ragged young man and told him that he had been charged by the king to fulfill any wish the prince had so that he would return in joy to his father. The coffers of the kingdom were open for him. The son was confused, overwhelmed by his circumstances. He had been so long in the forest that the palace had become a distant dream. He stammered, asking if he could truly make any request and it would be fulfilled. The knight affirmed it joyously. The son, with fear lest he overstep, asked for a fresh roll with butter.
We are all princes. But we are even more than that. We are angels wearing clothes of flesh. When wishing, remember that more than the child wants to eat, the father longs to feed him. Fling open the doors of your heart knowing that you cannot be denied. I ask one thing. A true wish is a precious thing. It grows when new voices are added. Please, come to me in my dream. Whisper in my ear. Tell me who you are, what you wish for. We shall cry together, laugh together, wish together. We shall come together, not in riches, not pooling together all that we have, but in our wishes, what our souls long to bring into the world.

UNLIMITED WARRANTY: May all of your wishes come true.

Please share with me your wishes, hopes, and dreams. If you have met the Hope Merchant in any of his many forms and disguises, please tell me about it.

Having a Hard Time Living the Good Life

Maybe I am doing something wrong but…….

Moishe Gellar and I once had an argument. Okay, maybe it was a disagreement or just a discussion. But when it comes to all things Gratefully Dead, Moishe is rarely ambivalent, frequently adamant, and sometimes abrasive. When I went to dead shows, I always stood as close to the speakers as I could get. I also have this weird mental thing which makes it difficult for me to make out lyrics. I don’t sing in public because everyone is always shocked at how badly I mangle the words. In first grade, I was made to sit in the corner because I sang the Dawnser song. You know, the dawnser that gives off a lee light. Apologies to Robert Hunter, but were it not for hanging out with Deadheads who were constantly quoting the lyrics and all the bumper stickers, I probably wouldn’t have known that Dead songs even had lyrics. Well, one time Moishe heard me singing the Dead tune about having a hard time living a good life. Jerry, of blessed memory, sang it so soulfully. Moishe was horrified. “Those aren’t the words! It’s ‘having a high time living the good life’.” Immediately, I knew Moishe was right, but it got me thinking. Singing about having a high time living a good life isn’t very novel. If you are living the good life, you should be having a high time. The fact is, though, I know I am living the good life. I have a wonderful wife, great kids, I love my house and where I live, I like being a frum Jew,and I even like my eco-friendly electric cart. But it isn’t easy and I am often happiness challenged (That is nineties PC talk meaning depressed). Despite knowing the correct lyrics, I am having a hard time living the good life. I am okay with it. I think. Maybe we aren’t supposed to be walking around in a state of sustained euphoria. Maybe we are and it’s just me. I don’t know. What do you think?



When I was working as a cook in Manhattan, I was young and single and loved to mingle. During that time, I discovered an amazing phenomenon. In social gatherings, people would ask two questions: What is your name? And What do you do? That was actually not as clear cut or as logical as you might think. I could guarantee that five minutes later, they probably wouldn’t remember my name, but they would definitely remember what I did for a living. More important than my name, my job title allowed them to classify me in a way which made them comfortable. They knew, or thought they knew, which economic level I belonged in. One of the greatest sins, reminiscent of tattooing numbers on Jewish forearms, is quantifying people. It is forbidden in the torah, and yet we do it to ourselves.
Materialism would state that a person is what he owns or how much he is worth. However that is not true or accurate, though it does have some basis in truth. A person cannot be entirely defined by what he owns, but he is affected by owning things. Owning things is important because it does define you and change who you are.  An automobile owner has certain privileges and freedoms, certain abilities to do things, but he also has responsibilities and liabilities. Right now I am waiting for a cop to try and pull me over while I am driving my electric cart so that I can laugh in his face. I own an electric cart so my status under the law is different than someone who owns a car. I want so much to get a horse, so I can illegally park it and have a meter maid try to put a ticket under its tail. Because of my limitations, I have fewer responsibilities. That is true but it cannot define my worth as a human and it only tells you specific and limited things about me. My father, of blessed memory, was irreplaceable because our relationship was unique in all of human history. He was MY father.
 As an aside, one of the major failings of modern education is  the need to quantify knowledge in a standardized, homogenous manner. Because the educational system needs to do this in order to achieve its goals, it is doomed to absolute and unavoidable failure.
My rejection of this system was one of the main thoughts behind my novel, The Hope Merchant. I have always loved listening to people’s stories. A description of one of their possessions is boring. Unfortunately, in a world of factories and assembly lines most objects are boring. An artisan can tell a story of a unique piece they created. Even architecture is getting to be stories of monoculture. I have heard stories of great architecture that were spellbinding, like the building of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam. I remember reading that the tiles in Grand Central Station, which give it a special look, were specially designed by the architect to be the perfect size to fit into a bricklayer’s hand comfortably. Stories like that are less common today. A person can be all excited about a new car he bought, how fast it goes, or whatever is the current chic must-have out there, but to me it just means that he has acquired something that rolled off an assembly line and landed in his driveway, along with 50,000 other driveways. The really sad thing is when a person tries to become a certain person by buying something. If I get a certain car, then I will be an exciting or sexy person. I think it accounts for the great success of health clubs. People buy memberships to health clubs thinking it will make them healthy and slim. They just neglect the actual going to the health club and exercise. All they have to do is buy a rope for jumping, a cheap pair of sneakers, and maybe a ball, but acquiring an expensive membership reinforces in their mind the self-definition of being athletic.
The stories that really caught my interest, made me drool in fascination, and told me the most about the storytellers, were not the stories of what they had or even who they were. The real stories were what they didn’t have, what their hearts needed, what they longed for. Advertising wants to convince me to desire something. Modern society has fulfilled all of our needs, or so it would have us think. Do I need mass marketing to tell me what I want and that some massive corporation is already producing thousands of it? I am not a great dad because I spent all of my son’s adolescence working overtime in order to buy him a car. I am a great dad because of the night I sat up watching him cough with the croup, praying for each new breath. Tell me what you don’t have but what you really want, and that tells me so much more about you than what you do have. Tell me what you wish for