Tu B’Shevat Reflections

The Ari (or somebody from his school) says that the Tu B’Shevat seder is the tikkun of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.   Tikkun means something like — taking something that didn’t turn out well and recontextualizing it so as to understand why in the ultimate analysis it is a good thing, healing, re-integration of disparate elements or subsystems of the self into a coherent whole.

In other words the Tu B’Shevat seder is meant to bring us back to the Garden of Eden.

What are we to make of a story about a super-man who creates a man in his image, puts him in a garden with two magic trees, tells him to eat one and not the other, then is surprised and all judgey when the copy-man eats the tree and kicks him out of the garden, punishing him with hard labor, sexual shame, and death?

The first thing is to realize that it is a children’s story.

The second thing is to realize that it is a children’s story about the loss of childhood, or ignorance, or animality, or feeling like being one with nature and part of nature.  It is not an adult story about that — the adult story about that is more like what I just said — we evolved from animals and have told various stories about what we have lost and what we have gained.   A species of arboreal primates who came down from the trees and developed sufficiently advanced brains that they could reflect upon their separation from nature, conquer nature, and long to return to it. The adult story is about regaining the second Eden, which is to say, the right blend of innocence and experience, of ignorance and knowledge.

Another way to say the right blind of innocence and experience is to say the right blend of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life.  The tree of life, the feeling that our lives are good because they are life — eating, hugging, breathing — and the the tree of knowledge, the idea that we are different from our natural, animal selves and can be better — all the things we know — have to be put in the proper relationship.

How do we put them in the proper relationship?  By making all the things we know and all the ideals we have of how to do better in service of the tree of life.

Because the Torah is a Tree of Life to those that hold on to it.

We put them in the proper relationship by ritual — the Tu B’Shevat seder.  Ritual is a fancy word for play.  Or to use another fancy word it is using transitional objects — things that hover on the boundary between self and world, real and imaginary.  Ritual objects are toys.  In play we have recaptured the second innocence.

As Nietzsche said that’s maturity — to recapture the seriousness we had as children playing with toys.






Reading List for the New Semester

Unit One: Endings and Beginnings

Eddison, E.R. The Worm Ouroboros

Chesterton, G.K. The Man Who Was Thursday

Garcia Marquez, Gabriel One Hundred Years of Solitude

Cordovero, Moses. Introduction to Kabbalah: An Annotated Translation of His or Ne’Erav

Unit Two: Anagnorisis and Priority

Dodgson, C.L. Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

Moore, Alan Miracleman

Hofstadter, Douglas Godel, Escher Bach

Unit Three: Quest and Identity

Sophocles, Oedipus The King

Attar The Conference of the Birds

Crowley, John Little, Big

Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of EarthSea

Parfit, Derek Reasons and Persons


Grading: Anyone who attends the course will receive an A.

Anyone who attends the course and does the reading will receive an A+.

Anyone who attends the course, does the reading, and understands it will receive an A+ and their choice of a vintage 1976 matchbox racing car or a dolly.

Office Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 11:30 pm, in the back of the halvah section of Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue next to the glass  jar full of golden raisins.

Teaching Assistants: An owl, a can, a spoonful of pepper.

Note: Lateness will not be tolerated! ELK


The Immortality of Rocky Balboa

When I was writing for a lifestyle magazine in New York City in the 1980s a friend of a friend of mine got me the phone number of Sylvester Stallone’s publicist, a woman named Marianne DeAngelo.  It was a big “get” and I was happy. I thought if I called the number I could get an interview with Stallone and this proved to be the case.  As I rode up the elevator in the small apartment building in the Bronx where we had agreed to meet, I imagined I would have a six or even eight thousand word article which I could publish in my magazine and receive acclaim from my work superiors and the approbation of my peers.

I knocked on the door and knocked again, waited, checked the address and then knocked again this time really loudly and rudely.  The publicist opened to the door but kept the chain locked on.  Her hair was wet and tied back and her face was both wet and greasy.  Through the half-open door I smelled cigarette smoke and garlic, I heard the click-clack-clack of what I soon learned were men playing dominos and muttering and yellig as people chopped vegetables and halvah.

“My name is Eric.  I’m here to interview Mr. Stallone?”

“Of course come on in.” said the publicist.  “He’s asleep but we’ll wake him.”

The living room of the apartment was full of people, some fully clothed, some in the undershirts.  A guy was lifting weights, lying on a bench and curling, though curiously he was in evening dress.  The television was showing some seventies pornography — raunchy stuff but old-fashioned. Nobody payed it any mind.  There were black and white photographs of people from the old country, in military costumes with buttons and fezzes.

“Wake up!  You have a visitor!”

Stallone, was fully dressed, his frilly shirt covered with cake crumbs.  The room was littered with empty birthday cake boxes, hookahs, halvah, and bowls full of glass marbles and buttons.  “What is it?” he said startling awake “What?

“Tell him about Rocky!”

“Rocky?  Rocky is about immortality.  The immortal spirit of Rocky Balboa possessed me right here!” he opened his chest and I saw a tattoo of a serpent biting its tail, and he thumped it with a fist.  “Feel!”  He took my hand and put it on his chest.  It was warm and sweaty.

“None of that shit about spirits!” said the publicist.  “Tell him about the movie business.”

“You want to see the movie business?  Watch this!”  He turned off the light switch and smiled.  A light was glowing from inside his mouth.  “Some fun, huh?”

“Fun?  I’ll give you fun, you jerk!” said the publicist and picked up a an elephant tail and starting beating Stallone, really hard across the chest and shoulders and neck.  “No, no, I promise I’ll be good. ” said Stallone, cringing back from the blows and hiding under the covers. “I’ll turn into whatever you want! I’ll turn into a river or a boat or a box of pennies.”

“Box of pennies?” said the publicist pulling aside the comforter and beating him even harder.  “The time for that was over yesterday.”


What’s Your Problem?

I heard a story about a rabbi in New York once.  A minister asked him “Rabbi, are you saved?”  The rabbi said “That’s not my problem.”  The priest said “What’s your problem, then?”   The rabbi said : “What is my next mitzvah going to be?”

The rabbi was suggesting that Christianity is the problem to which it is its own solution. But that’s true of all the good problems.  Or, to speak less riskily, the first problem for each of us is “what’s my problem?”  Once you know what your problem is the rest is just luck, or hard work, or technique.