Ha’azinu – The Eternal Bond

ימצאהו בארץ מדבר ובתהו ילל ישימון, יסובבנהו יבוננהו יצרנהו כאישון עינו

(דברים לב, י)

We are almost at the end of the Torah, and Moshe teaches the children of Israel a song, 43 verses long, the song of Ha’azinu (“you all shall listen”). In the previous chapter God commands Moshe to teach this song, so that when hard times befall the people of Israel, it “shall testify before them as a witness, for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed”. Reading this purpose, one expects the song to be an uplifting one, emphasizing the timeless bond between God and his people.

But when we read Ha’azinu, we find in it some verses that cast a shadow on this purpose. For example, in verse 10, we read:

He found him in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness. He compassed him about, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye.

(Devarim 32, 10)

God did not find the people of Israel in the desert. He “found” them in Egypt, and ordered them to go to the desert! Rashi explains here that this is the “finding of God”, that is believing in God and accepting his rule, which indeed happened at Mount Sinai in the desert. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, explains that the word “found” (ימצאהו in Hebrew) should not be interpreted literally, but rather as “provided”: God sustained the people of Israel, providing them with protection and nourishment during their 40-year wanderings in the desert.

Yet, even with these explanations, it is strange not to find one word in this song about the covenant between God and Israel. Also not mentioned is God’s promise to the forefathers (Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov). Furthermore, in verses 26-27, comes the description of the punishment (in the future) for abandoning God, and why ultimately this punishment will not come to be:

I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men. Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation, lest their adversaries should misdeem, lest they should say: Our hand is exalted, and not God wrought all this.

(Devarim 32, 26-27)

Throughout the Bible, the punishment for us leaving the ways of God is exile. A few weeks ago we read a long passage of “curses” describing the harsh realities of this exile. Yet here, the punishment seems to be total annihilation, and the only reason for God not going through with it is a presumed fear of “what will other nations say” if He did.

No mention of the covenant, no mention of the promise God made to the forefathers, and the threat of annihilation. Hardly an uplifting song to sustain us in hard times… How are we to understand these anomalies?

In an almost paradoxical fashion, these anomalies indeed underline the eternal, unbreakable bond between God and the people Israel. Were Ha’azinu formulated as a conditional contract (as most of the Torah is), the possibility of the contract being annulled exists: if we follow God, we’ll be OK; if we don’t, we’ll get punished. This conditional contract raises the possibility of God rupturing his ties with his people. But instead, we see interspersed throughout this song the words “father” and “sons”, highlighting the unconditional and unbreakable nature of this bond. Just like, no matter what the children do, parents never completely break their ties with them, so God, no matter what we do, shall never completely forsake us. The possibility indeed exists (“I thought I would make an end of them”), but its impossibility is immediately pointed out.

We just finished the fast of Kippur. The Mishnah, at the end of the tractate of Ta’anit, says that Yom Kippur is one of the two best days of the year for the people of Israel (along with the 15th of Av). On these days, the daughters of Israel would dance in white clothes, seeking a husband. Those girls who were ugly in appearance would call out to prospective husbands to ignore physical beauty and marry them “for God’s sake”. Similarly, on Yom Kippur, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple wearing white robes, and would pray to God to protect the people of Israel even though they have sinned.

Like the girls and like the priest we come before God and tell him: even though our deeds make us “ugly”, do not forsake us “for God’s sake”. Not because of the promise You made to our forefathers, not because of the covenant You gave us. But simply because of the eternal bond between us and Him, children and Father.

The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from R. Amnon Bazak.
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Road Trip through Chugoku and Shikoku

I spent a week driving through the Chugoku and Shikoku regions of Japan. The odometer showed a total of 1,500km when I was done.

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This was my itinerary (clicking on a day will take you to the relevant section):

Day 1: Kobe > Tottori > Kaike Onsen > Sakaiminato > Matsue > Izumo

Day 2: Izumo > Omoricho > Iwami Ginzan > Yunotsu Onsen > Tsuwano

Day 3: Tsuwano > Mount Kasayama > Hagi > Motonosumi Inari > Mojiko > Yamaguchi

Day 4: Yamaguchi > Iwakuni > Matsuyama

Day 5: Matsuyama > Tokushima

Day 6: Tokushima > Naruto > Hokudan > Matsuho no Sato > Kobe

Day 1: Kobe > Tottori > Kaike Onsen > Sakaiminato > Matsue > Izumo

Setting off from Kobe, I drove straight to Tottori, 180 km away (almost 3 hours with a couple of pit stops).

Tottori prefecture is at the northern part of western Japan, straddling the Sea of Japan. It is famous for its sand dunes (Tottori Sakyu), the biggest in Japan, about 15km in length. The dunes can be accessed on foot from the visitor center, or by chair lift from a higher lookout point. I took the chair lift (300 Yen round trip). The dunes are not that impressive, but my opinion is tainted by the fact I come from Israel, where we have hundreds of kilometers of sand dunes, in all shapes and sizes. But, for Japan, this is indeed a rare landscape. The Japanese climb the dune open to the public to get a view out into the sea. They can also ride a camel for completing the “Middle East experience”.

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Next to the sand dunes is Tottori Sand Museum (600 Yen), which has been around for only about 10 years. It displays large sand sculptures and is unique in the sense that every year the exhibition changes and centers on a different theme (the museum is closed from January to April, when the artists build the sculptures). The theme this year is “Nordic Countries”. The sculptures feature Nordic landscapes, animals, mythology, folk tales, famous figures, and more. Some are truly spectacular in the level of detail. The open area of the museum also offers a view of the sand dunes.

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From Tottori I drove west to Kaike Onsen, a hot springs area in Yonago city. Sitting at the foot of Mount Daizen, facing Miho Bay, the water here is somewhat salty and apparently rich in sodium. I didn’t have much time to sample the water, so I paid a quick visit to a popular local bathhouse, OU Land (400 Yen basic fee). It wasn’t very crowded, just me and mostly elderly Japanese men taking their time to soak in the water. It was a refreshing stop on this long driving day.

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Continuing westwards I arrived in Sakaiminato, at the tip of Miho Bay. I stopped here to walk up and down Mizuki Shigeru Road. Shigeru, a native of Sakaiminato, was one of the most famous and prolific Japanese manga (Japanese comics) authors, best known for his GeGeGe-no-Kitaro series. Shigeru passed away a few years ago, at the age of 93, and this street is lined with sculptures of his characters. The street was bustling with families and children carrying Shigeru’s books and yelping wildly every time they encounter a sculpture of a character they recognize. This being Japan, there was also much yelping done by the adults too… As anyone travelling on Japanese public transportation knows, adults are no less avid manga readers than children. The atmosphere here is joyous and festive.

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To cross over from Tottori prefecture to Shimane prefecture one drives along the Eshima-Ohashi Bridge. Photos of this bridge became very popular on the internet, due to the apparently steep angle of the descent into Shimane. It looks very steep in the photos (I shot one myself…) but in reality, the angle is not that steep (about 6%). Regardless, I can now say I drove on the “roller coaster bridge”…

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I made a brief stop at Matsue, to see the local castle and the surrounding moat, and take a stroll through the neighboring Samurai district. From there I drove to my destination for Shabbat, Izumo.

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Day 2: Izumo > Omoricho > Iwami Ginzan > Yunotsu Onsen > Tsuwano

On Sunday morning I went to see Izumo Taisha (free), one of the grand shrines of Japan. It is truly grand, consisting of several structures and sitting on a large plot of land, complete with its own park. At the entrance to the shrine I saw the largest flag of Japan flying at the top of a huge pole. An uncharacteristic display of national pride.

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From the shrine I drove a short distance to the Former Taisha Station (free). This is a train station that stopped operating in 1990, but was kept intact because of its unique architecture. It is distinctively Japanese, constructed in 1924 from wood and with a curved tiled rood, so it looks more like a shrine than a train station. A steam locomotive stands on the tracks.

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Leaving Izumo, I continued west towards Omoricho and the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine. It is not possible to visit this town and the mine by car, so I left the car at the World Heritage Center, where frequent buses take you to Omoricho (200 Yen one way). From Omoricho bus station one can either walk to the mine, about 2.5 kilometers up the hill, or rent a bicycle for a couple of hours (700 Yen). Given the hot and humid weather, I opted for the bicycle… It’s a pleasant trip uphill, through the old town of Omoricho, into the forest and along the river. There is a small ticket office at the entrance to the mine, and foreigners get a special discount (200 Yen instead of 400 Yen), and then it’s into the cramped and cool (12C compared to 33C outside) mine shaft. The walk inside the shaft itself is short and rather uneventful. One has to imagine how, for centuries, people worked underground in these conditions to fully comprehend what went on here. From the mine exit it’s the same itinerary, in reverse, to the World Heritage Center.

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Before returning the bicycle though, it is worth continuing downhill through the old town of Omoricho. The houses on both sides of the main road preserve the feel of pre-Meiji Japan, with several Samurai residences strung along the road. There are a few shops and eateries, but thankfully the place has not become too touristy and it is still very enjoyable.

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From Omoricho I drove to Yunotsu Onsen, a sleepy hot springs town. I needed to wash off and relax inside one of the old onsens in this town. The roads are unbelievably narrow and it takes some maneuvering to get past oncoming traffic in these two-way alleyways. The public baths are very basic and it looks like nothing has changed inside them for centuries. The water in the onsen I visited (I forget the name) was extremely hot (about 45C) so it took a while for me to get used to it, and even then I managed only a short soak before jumping out.

From Yunotsu it was a 2.5 hour drive to my final destination for the day, Tsuwano. This small, remote village sits in a valley, straddling a small river. The old town is small and quiet, but it boasts a church, which seems very much out of place here if one doesn’t know the history of Christian missionaries in Japan. The town’s main attraction is the Taikodani Inari Shrine (free), which perches over the town and provides magnificent views of the valley. As is the norm with Inari shrines it is painted red, lots and lots of red, there’s a long stairway with red torii gates leading up to it and the requisite fox statues. It is one of the five biggest Inari shrines in Japan.

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Day 3: Tsuwano > Mount Kasayama > Hagi > Motonosumi Inari > Mojiko > Yamaguchi

Early morning I strolled through the old town of Tsuwano, stopping by the Catholic Church dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier, one of the leading missionaries to Japan in the 16th century. It is one of two catholic churches in this small town, testimony to the spread of Christian influence in southern Japan about five centuries ago.

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On my way to Hagi, I drove up Mount Kasayama, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful spots in my trip. The views from the top of this mountain, jutting out to the Sea of Japan, are beautiful. On the way down from the summit, it is worth taking a small detour (1.5km) to visit the Camellia Grove (Tsubaki Gunseirin). Entering this grove immediately cuts you off from the world, with nothing but the background chirping noise of the cicadas filling the air. There are many paths through the grove, some leading to the edge of the water.

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At Hagi, I first stopped by Aibagawa, the water canal district. With a little stretch of the imagination, one can picture this old neighbourhood as a small Venice, with water canals running along the old residences. But it’s a stretch… because it is decidedly Japanese in style, and the canals are teeming with multicoloured carp (Koi).

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The famous Hagi Castle is no more, but one can visit its ruins (210 Yen). These are spread over a wide area, so if walking is not an option, bicycle rentals are available. Frankly, I found the place to be somewhat underwhelming; there are not enough ruins left to picture what this formidable castle looked like before it was destroyed in the 19th century, at the end of the feudal era in Japan.

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Two places of worship are worth a visit in Hagi: Shoin Shrine (Shinto) and Tokoji Temple (Zen Buddhism). The first, a relatively modern shrine (built 1955) commemorates Yoshida Shoin, a thinker who challenged Japan’s feudal system in the 19th century and was executed before witnessing the Meiji Revolution. The second is an old wooden temple from the late 17th century. At its back is an impressive graveyard of several feudal lords, the courtyard lined with hundreds of stone lanterns with long stone steps that lead to the graves.

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Leaving Hagi, I followed the coastal road westwards and northwards to Motonosumi Inari Shrine. This is the first time I encountered traffic during my trip, with a long line of cars waiting to enter the small parking lot. Eventually, we were directed to a bigger parking space down the hill, and shuttle buses were arranged to take us back uphill. The popularity of this spot is justified; it is indeed a breathtaking sight. CNN Travel apparently listed it as one of the must-see spots in Japan.

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A long and winding line of red torii gates, about 100m long, lead to the main shrine gate. On top of this gate is an offering box, that people try to throw money into for good luck (a formidable task, given it’s a few metres high and the wind blows strongly on this barren rocky outlet). The views both from below and from above the “tunnel” of gates is remarkable, as is the sight of the crashing waves.

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From here I drove straight down south to cross the Kanmonkyo Bridge into the southern island of Kyushu. This side trip was meant to see the Mojiko area which hosts a summer festival during Obon week. Many food stands, street shows and couples strolling along the water in yukata robes.

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Despite my plan to stop in Shimonoseki, I was tired so I decided to drive straight to my stop for the night, Yamaguchi. This was the first leg of my eastward-bound trip back home. But before retiring I took a dip in the famous Yuda Onsen to wash off the weariness of this long day.

Day 4: Yamaguchi > Iwakuni > Matsuyama

Yamaguchi is home to various places of worship: shrines, temples and churches. I visited four of them.

First, the Daijingu Shrine, an old (16th century) wooden shrine built to model the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture (Japan’s most sacred shrine). The shrines here don’t look very old because, in accordance with tradition, they are destroyed and rebuilt every twenty years. Second, the Xavier Church, a modern structure that honours Saint Francis Xavier (see Tsuwano above). The church burned down in 1991, so the current structure looks completely new. Third, Rurikoji Temple, a Buddhist temple boasting one of Japan’s three 5-storied pagoda (the other two are in Kyoto and in Nara). It was built in the 15th century and is impressive to behold both from far and from near. Finally, Joeiji Temple, another Buddhist temple, famous for its expansive Zen garden which features many upright rocks.

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From Yamaguchi I continued on to Iwakuni. To many foreigners living in Japan, Iwakuni is known as home of one of the largest US marine bases in the country. But for locals it is famous mostly for its uniquely-built Kintaikyo Bridge and the adjoining Iwakuni Castle (combination ticket 920 Yen).

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This massive bridge is built as “waves”, some smooth stone and some stone steps. Walking along the bridge offers nice views of the Nishiki River. On the other side of the bridge lies Kikko Park, home of the former local feudal lord, Kikkawa Hiroyoshi, who started building the bridge. The park is surrounded by old samurai residences. To ascend to the castle, there is a ropeway cable car that provides beautiful views of the city. A short walk uphill leads to the castle itself, consisting of several floors and a breezy top floor offering views of the river, the bridge and the city (and the marine base in the far distance). The castle is surrounded by a forest, which provides welcome shade.

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The visit to Iwakuni concluded the Chugoku part of this trip. Driving down the coast to Yanai, I boarded the car ferry to Shikoku (about 10,000 Yen for a car). The journey takes about 2.5 hours, landing at the port of Matsuhama, which is a short drive from Matsuyama City, my stop for the night.

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Matsuyama boasts one of the oldest onsens (some say the oldest) in Japan: Dogo Onsen. I really wanted to sample the waters of this ancient establishment. But, this being Obon week and families from all over Japan taking their summer vacation, the lines were simply too long for me. Another time.

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Day 5: Matsuyama > Tokushima

Starting early in the morning I went to see Matsuyama Castle. One can choose either a cable car or a chair lift to go up Mount Katsuyam (510 Yen round trip). From the top station one still needs to walk uphill for a while before reaching the castle grounds. I saw a young man pushing cartons of soft drinks uphill to replenish the vending machines; I felt sorry for him in this excruciatingly hot and humid weather. The castle itself (also 510 Yen) is one of Japan’s 12 “original castles”, so called because they survived the Meiji Revolution of 1868 intact. As a feudal castle, it is heavily fortified, with several defence lines before reaching the inner keep.

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I didn’t have time for much more at Matsuyama, because I had to get to Tokushima, on the other side of Shikoku, before evening, to make it on time for summer festival dance there. So I took the expressway cutting through Shikoku all the way to the east. It’s a nice drive, through tunnels and bridges with magnificent views all around

Tokushima is most known for its Awa Odori dance festival, which takes place during Obon week every year. In fact, this city is so tied to the festival, that the famous dancer costume (pointed straw hat) is the symbol of the city, and all around town are statues of dancers. One can simply wander the streets and enjoy the festive atmosphere, but the crowds are numerous. So I purchased tickets to one of the outdoor stages where one can sit and watch the dances.

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As luck would have it, the skies opened up in torrential rain just as the performance started. Everybody got thoroughly soaked (at one point, people put away their umbrellas as they were of no use anyway). The dancers, seemingly unperturbed, continued with their performance, the only allowance being that the drums were covered by plastic to protect them from the water. The rain made the show all the more spectacular.

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Getting a hotel room in Tokushima during Awa Odori is near impossible, so I slept half an hour’s drive away, in a sleepy town called Anan.

Day 6: Tokushima > Naruto > Hokudan > Matsuo no Sato > Kobe

For the last day of my trip, I headed north towards home. Before leaving Shikoku, I visited the German House in Naruto. During World War 1, the Japanese hosted about 1,000 German POWs here (along with a smattering of other European POWs). The house turned into a museum exhibiting how the Germans made Naruto their home, printing their own magazine, setting up music bands and theatre performances, and generally blending in with the locals. When the was was over, 63 Germans decided to stay behind and make Japan their new home.

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From Naruto, one crosses over to Awaji Island over a bridge. Looking down at the water, there are several whirlpools visible, a natural phenomenon occurring due to the large volume of water passing through the narrow strait.

On Awaji Island, I stopped first at Sumoto, to see the local castle ruins. The castle is no more, but the tower was reconstructed about a 100 years ago (in honour of the coronation of the Showa Emperor) and the summit offers beautiful views of the town and the sea.

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From Sumoto I crossed over the island to Hokudan. This small village sits on the Nojima Fault, the one that triggered the deadly Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. The Hokudan Earthquake Memorial Park houses a small museum that tells the story of that earthquake, that took the lives of more than 6,000 people. Large areas along Rokko Mountain, including Kobe, were destroyed. There is a simulation room where one can sit in a “living room” and experience what the earthquake felt like. Unpleasant, to say the least.

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Before heading home, I stopped at Matsuho no Sato, a small onsen sitting on the hilltop facing the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. This bridge, which connects Awaji Island to the mainland, is the longest suspension bridge in the world, just shy of 2 kilometres. The outdoor baths of this onsen provide a stunning view of the bridge and the endless stream of cars crossing it in both directions (despite the ridiculously high toll: 2,300 Yen). Crossing the bridge myself brought me back to Kobe, ending the trip.

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Free Umbrellas

Rainy season (tsuyu) has just begun in Japan. This is the season when leaving home without an umbrella is likely to result in getting drenched by a sudden rainstorm. This is also the season when staff at subway and train stations collect countless forgotten umbrellas every day.

A new initiative by Dydo, a vending machine company, connects and solves these two problems. They are offering free umbrellas, many of them received from rail companies and refurbished, for rent. You can simply pick up an umbrella from any Dydo vending machine, and when done, return it to any Dydo vending machine.

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I know what you’re thinking: this won’t work because people will simply take the umbrellas and won’t bother returning them. Well, you forget this is Japan. Dydo trialed this scheme in Osaka and found out that close to 100% of the umbrellas are returned. The scheme has now been expanded to more than 500 vending machines nationwide.

Tsav – Giving Thanks

ואם נדר או נדבה זבח קרבנו ביום הקריבו את זבחו יאכל וממחרת והנותר ממנו יאכל

(ויקרא ז, טו)

In this week’s parasha we read about various sacrifices that were brought to the Temple in ancient times. One of them is the “thanksgiving offering” (קרבן תודה).

Anyone who felt thankful to God for something could bring this offering. The Talmud tells us four people had the obligation to bring it, after being delivered from a troubling situation: those who traveled through seas or through deserts, ill people who got better and those who were released from captivity. (Today we have a special thanksgiving blessing for these situations: ברכת הגומל).

The thanksgiving offering differed from other offerings in two major aspects. First, it was brought with a considerable side offering of leavened and unleavened bread, 40 loaves in total. Second, the time allocated to eating the meat from the sacrifice was limited to the day of the offering only (with most offerings, the meat could be eaten the next day as well):

And the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace-offerings for thanksgiving shall be eaten on the day of his offering; he shall not leave any of it until the morning.

(Bereshit 22, 12)

Why these differences?

With regards to the limited time to eat the meat, this reminds us of another offering: the Passover sacrifice (קרבן פסח), which is to be eaten “in haste”. The reason being, that the People of Israel had to leave Egypt quickly and could not waste time. The idea of not losing the moment seems to be relevant also for the thanksgiving offering. The Torah knows human nature well. A person saying “thank you” expresses a fleeting moment of gratitude. We are not “programmed” to express thankfulness and rare are those moments when we feel so deeply grateful as to actively do something about it (for example, bring a sacrifice to the Temple). The time limit on the eating of the meat is designed to align with the short-lived nature of our feelings. We should feast on this meat only while we are still truly feeling thankful.

One person is unlikely to be able to eat the entire sacrifice alone, so the time limit also means one is more likely to share the meat with others, so it doesn’t go to waste. Especially so as this thanksgiving offering included 40 loaves of bread. The abundance of food in this sacrifice forces us to share. When we share, we include others in our feelings of gratitude, we tell them the story behind the bringing of the sacrifice, and we generally bond with others. In this manner we also extend our private expression of thankfulness to God to the public domain and thus fulfill a further mitzvah of praising God and sanctifying His name (קידוש השם).

May we all learn from the ideas behind the thanksgiving offering so as to be truly thankful for what we have.

 

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro. I loved it, so I decided to read another of his novels, this time one of the most acclaimed ones: “Never Let Me Go”. It was a disappointment.

6334This is a science fiction novel about human clones, who are raised up to serve as organ donors for their human originals when they get ill. We don’t know this is what the novel is actually about, because Ishiguro builds the story up gradually. We first read about this boarding school in rural England and the lives of the children there, and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, we learn that they are in fact human clones.

Not that there is anything wrong with slow novels. In fact, all the Ishiguro novels I read until now were paced very slowly. But his language and the story compensated for the slow pace. Not so in this novel. For some reason, Ishiguro adopted a technique here that I found quite annoying. The story is told by Kathy, an grown-up, who reminisces about her days at the school for human clones and her relationship with her friends there. Every few pages, Kathy “alerts” the reader that something happened, as a segue into the throwback into the story of how it happened. At first, this technique works. But after it repeats itself over and over again, it becomes tedious. We know Kathy is telling a story from her past; we don’t need the constant reminders we are about to jump back in time.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh, but this technique ruined the novel for me. The idea behind the story – that human clones have feelings and grow up pretty much like a real human – is an interesting one. But something in how Ishiguro tells the story didn’t work for me.

I will read more Ishiguro, but I hope the next novels I read will be more like “The Remains of the Day” and “The Buried Giant” and less like “Never Let Me Go”.

Israel & Japan – Variance

I am on a very short visit to Israel (3 days), and here is an observation that came to my mind about one of the major differences between my country, Israel, and the country I currently live in, Japan.

In one word: variance.

In statistics, variance denotes how far a set of numbers are spread out from their average value. In other words, the higher the variance, the wider and more spread out things are.

In Japan, conformity and adherence to rules are the norm, which results in a pretty uniform experience when interacting with other people. There are prescribed phrases and norms of conduct governing almost every human interaction. For example, when arriving and leaving work, the same phrases are said to colleagues, every day for years. Or when buying in a store, the staff will invariably greet customers with the same set phrases or set questions. Very little is left to the imagination, let alone individual expression.

The opposite is true in Israel. When you meet a person, enter a store, or ask someone something – you never know what the response will be. It’s terra incognita every time. It might be a pleasant interaction which will bring a smile to your face, or it might be a confrontational one which will make you angry or disappointed.

Here are a couple of small examples from a visit to the supermarket today. I approached one of the staff members asking where to find a certain product. She shrugged her shoulders (no words spoken). I took that as an “I don’t know” and asked her if there was anywhere I could ask. She barked back at me along the lines of “I don’t know and stop bothering me”.

A few minutes later, as I was leaving the store, the guy checking the receipts at the door smiled heartily, wished me a great day, and a long and healthy life. I didn’t ask him anything or say anything; he bestowed me with these kind blessings unsolicited.

So, the variance in Israel is huge in comparison to Japan. This reminded me of something a visitor to Japan told me recently: Japan is great, people are very polite and kind, and service is unparalleled. But when it comes to everyday human interaction, it’s “devoid of colour”.

The Sniffling

This series is about Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise. But even in Paradise there is, occasionally, some trouble.

It is winter, and I want to talk about the sniffling.

Blowing your nose in Japan is considered very rude. Actually, not only rude, but extremely disgusting. Even if you do it as discreetly and silently as possible, it is still a big no-no in public. The result is the ubiquitous and unavoidable sniffling. Japanese with a runny nose will continuously sniffle, drawing in the phlegm instead of blowing it out into a tissue or a handkerchief.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than on crowded trains. During daytime (less so at night, when the alcohol makes their tongues looser), Japanese are very quiet on trains. Usually, this as a blessing. But in winter the result is a constant background “music” of sniffling. At a rate of a sniffle every 10-15 seconds per person, and with about 100 people in a crowded train car… you do the math!

I got used to the noodle slurping. I got used to the unbelievably slow pace of walking. But I don’t think I will ever get used to the sniffling. It is unbearable.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Everyone is reading Kazuo Ishiguro nowadays, the 2017 Nobel laureate in literature. In my defense I will say that I read two of his books prior to him receiving the Nobel. “The Buried Giant” is my third Ishiguro novel. And it’s a masterpiece.

The setting is England in the early Middle Ages, shortly after the legendary King Arthur passed away. Britons and Saxons are living more or less peacefully with each other, but still in separate villages. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out from their village on a journey to find their long-lost son. The entire population seems to be suffering from memory problems. The past is forgotten. Fragments of memories occasionally pop up, but mostly it’s a haze.

On their journey, Axl and Beatrice meet a Saxon warrior with his young protégé and an old Arthurian knight. They journey together, encountering along the way ogres, pixies and other mythical creatures. They appear to be on a joint quest to find and kill a she-dragon that is suspected to be responsible for the “mist” that causes people to forget the past. But, as it turns out, they all have different goals and interests, which slowly unravel as the story progresses.

This is not a fantasy novel. Nor is it a historical one. It is a novel about human beings and what motivates them. Mostly, it’s a novel about love. The love between Axl and Beatrice. The love between the Saxon warrior and his young companion. The love of the knight to his mission. Ishiguro reconstructs Middle Ages England through subtle details rather than through explicit descriptions. For example, to remind us of the state of hygiene at the time, a woman is described as not possessing the “smell of stale excrement the way most people did”.

As befits a master story teller, we do not discover who (or what) the “buried giant” is until the very end of the book. The ending leaves us pondering about the meaning of love, the ability to let go, the power of memories, and perhaps the unspoken quality and necessity of forgetfulness.

 

Why Netanyahu Should Go (For His Own Good)

The flood of inquiries into activities associated with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is overpowering. Even ignoring the “noise multiplier” effect of the media frenzy surrounding the latest revelations, there is little doubt about the breadth and severity of the allegations about bribery and corruption.

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Nethanyahu should go. It’s the right thing to do. Ideally, he should resign. At the very least, he should take time off. Like all suspects, he is innocent until proven guilty. Unlike almost all other suspects, he is the prime minister. As he himself said about his predecessor, a prime minister “up to his neck in investigations… does not have a public or moral mandate to determine such fateful matters for the state of Israel”.

But Netanyahu should go also because it’s for his own good. I am not a fan of Netanyahu, but I recognize his long and, in the eyes of many, successful career. Not only as prime minister, but also as finance minister, foreign minister, ambassador to the UN and many other prominent roles. Whichever way these multiple investigations end, Netanyahu’s career will not end well. Even in the unlikely event of full acquittal from all allegations, he will be weakened within his own party and will need to fight to stay in power. His image in the eyes of the public, even among his staunchest supporters, is already tainted beyond repair.

The Hebrew language has an expression (mistakenly paraphrasing a Talmudic saying): “his old days put his youth to shame”. It is used to describe people whose bad actions later in life eclipse their previously good actions. Netanyahu may still be able to salvage his legacy by stepping down and fighting his legal battles as a ordinary citizen, and not as an embattled and cornered prime minister.

The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis

This book was recommended to me by the headmaster of my daughter’s school. I’m guessing it’s because I’m Israeli, and the book is about two Israelis. As is the case with many book recommendations, this turned out to be an excellent one.

41xSNcb9xkLMichael Lewis wrote the story of two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who met in the late 1960s at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Their collaborative work, over a decade and a half, laid the foundations for what is known today as behavioural economics. It seems natural today for economists to explain human behaviour in terms of irrational decisions (see Dan Ariely’s books), but 40-50 years ago, the underlying assumption was that people were rational beings and that all economic decisions were made based on rational choices. When I studied economics at the Hebrew University in the 1990s, this assumption was still very much valid for most of what I was taught.

Lewis does a fabulous job of weaving the story of the separate, yet intertwined, lives of Kahneman and Tversky. He describes their joint work but also their personal relationship and some of the personal conflicts and dilemmas they faced. They had very different characters, but a huge respect for each other and a collaboration that one of their wives described as “stronger than marriage”. They devised simple experiments that showed how every person is affected by biases, regardless of their level of education or experience. Using examples from sports, academia, business, the military and much more, Lewis illustrates how these experiments uncovered previously unknown human traits. They did not continue working together after the mid 1980s, when they had a fallout, hence the “undoing” in the book’s title.

Tversky died from cancer in 1996, at the age of 59. Kahneman received the Nobel prize for Economics in 2002.

The closing chapter of the book brought a tear to my eyes, not something one expects when reading a book about psychology and economics. It is a testament to the moving power of this book, which fittingly for a book about psychologists, focuses on the human nature of these towering giants of academic brilliance.