a contemplation for the day

“Only a single person was created in the beginning to teach that if any individual causes a single person to perish, Scripture considers it as though an entire world has been destroyed, and if anyone saves a single person, Scripture considers it as though a whole world had been saved.” — Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

simple truth of the day: 1) that beastly internet

If you have a disagreement with someone in your family or community, someone you love or at least are closely connected to, you can have a personal conversation with that person about the subject. Since you know a lot about them already, a ground of trust exists.

If a more widespread misunderstanding has arisen within a family or community, again a foundation already is in place to build upon. Slights, insults, or slanders don’t happen every day at this level of direct acquaintance. When they do they are relatively exceptional and meetings to address them can take place within the real world.

Here is one of the huge and constantly overlooked troubles with the internet: far too many people are paying attention to what any of several … billion people are saying. Within a “community” that vast, and with such a substantial percentage of said community broadcasting their thoughts where any can encounter them, it is guaranteed that at each individual moment enormous numbers of things are being said which are stupid, thoughtless, mean-spirited, vile, disturbing. This is unavoidable, at least in this human age far, far, painfully far from maturity.

So when we find ourselves being diverted or upset by what any Joe Schmidt on the planet has to say, and choose to respond in some way, most of the time, despite our very best efforts, we are simply multiplying the amount of noise and confusion in the world. The internet is an unthinkably vast resonance chamber, and unfortunately a good proportion of what is echoing around and bouncing off all its walls is negative or at best frivolous, a waste of precious human energy. Can we really still be surprised at the amount of angry polarisation and hatred in the world?

Worse still, we virtually never know any of these people, as we do when we communicate with a member of our family or community. We know absolutely nothing of their history, nor they of ours. Instead we react to the merest shell of who they are at that moment in time — a single expression, in the form of a post, which in turn is only reacting to something else, a single thought or two, transmitted without the benefit of those countless nuances of feeling our voice is capable of manifesting, and even more our body as a whole.

The internet does seem not only to be affecting our capacity for sustained attention and reflection (George Saunders puts this well here), but also generating large amounts of needless aggression as well.  We can each do a little something about that.

lashon ha-ra (gossip): a Hasidic parable

“Lashon ha-ra” literally means “bad tongue,” ie gossip. Buddhism views it quite seriously as an infringement of harmful speech, but I especially love this Hasidic story used to illustrate it in Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy. Here’s the first part of the entry:

The biblical commandment forbidding gossip is probably the most widely disobeyed of the 613 laws of the Torah. Leviticus 19:16 teaches: “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people.” This basic principle forbids saying anything negative about another person, even if it is true, unless the person to whom one is speaking or writing has a legitimate need for this information (for example, in submitting a reference for a job applicant).

In the Talmud, the rabbis greatly elaborated on this biblical verse, arguing that destroying another’s name is akin to murder (Arakhin 15b), and like murder, the deed is irrevocable. The impossibility of undoing the damage done by harmful gossip is underscored in a Hasidic tale about a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness, and indicated that he was willing to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, and returned to notify the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request. He was then told, “Now go and gather all the feathers.”

The man protested. “But that’s impossible.”

“Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”

Shostakovich smiles!

shostakovich and britten

Nearly the only photo in which I’ve seen the great Shostakovich appear cheerful.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall listening to what he and Ben Britten had to say to one another…

I’m currently learning one of the fugues from DS’s stupendous “24 Preludes and Fugues,” Opus 87 (the one in C-sharp minor). And remembering the performance I attended of Alexander Melnikov playing the second half of those at Middlebury College. (I can’t recommend highly enough his recording of the complete set, by the way.)

temporal vertigo

I almost never use the Calendar app on my iPhone, but the other day I needed to find out the day of a particular event earlier in the year when away from my laptop. So I went to “year view” and scrolled back, overshooting a full year or two. I then found myself wondering how far back the calendars went, and began scrolling … and scrolling … and scrolling … The years, and centuries, flew away into the past and then the distant past.

Within seconds the nineteenth century had vanished forward, as it were, and then in no time so had the early modern years. I experienced an odd sense of vertigo watching entire eras of dense, rich human history zoom along, dissolving into their foundations, only to see those foundations dissolving in turn.

In no time I was confronted with a calendar from the fourteenth century and, pausing there, experienced a slew of random, disconnected bits of knowledge — of polities and conflicts and kings, music and literature and art and language, social and cultural and religious developments — flooding my mind. How far back is this thing gonna go? I wondered. My guess was: the year 1, beginning of the Common Era. On and on my index finger caressed the aluminosilicate glass display, early medievalism disappearing decade by decade in the flash of an eye.

I rested again, and suddenly realized that Rome had come back into being, as it were, a Christian Rome, besieged and tottering. And we were suddenly pre-Islam also. The Talmud was being compiled in Babylon. But I was too curious — back and back we went. Year 1 approached and then … raced on by. Finally tiring, I came to rest in 480 BCE, one of the traditional birth years given for the historical Buddha. The Jews had rebuilt the Temple by this point, Socrates was about to be born.


By the time I’d reversed direction and returned to the present, I’d lost interest in the parallel question: how far forward did the app reach? Also, it seemed a somewhat spooky inquiry: what if one of the app programmers also possessed prophetic gifts and the last calendar wasn’t all that far along? …

Just now, remembering, I did a search for this question, only to find that everybody has a different answer. Several people report that theirs goes back only to 1900, another person’s to 4716 BCE, yet another’s to 9999 BCE (whew, glad I didn’t have to do that). As for the other direction, the answer seems to be 9999, although one person claimed to have reached 20,000 before getting tired.

So maybe there’s a future after all.

meeting with the (l)lama

Screen shot 2014-11-22 at 9.59.17 PM

Just discovered this photo lurking in one of those “untitled folders” waiting to be properly filed. Having recently re-watched Season One of the still sui generis phenomenon of weird televisual genius that is “Twin Peaks,” it seemed appropriate to post. Those who have seen the series will remember the moment — one of so very many unforgettable ones — as vividly as yesterday. Alas, it would seem that Dale Cooper ultimately failed to comprehend the teaching he received here from his (l)lama — whatever that was, precisely…

Twenty-three years after the 29th, and final, episode aired, David Lynch and his collaborator Mark Frost announced a new, limited series of nine episodes, all written by Lynch and Frost and all directed by Lynch. These will be airing on Showtime sometime next year. Lynch’s imagination has only gotten more gloriously rich and strange in the interim. I can’t wait to see what he does with this. (Though as I am tv-less, I must hope that it is available before too long online.)