Annus Horribilis

Israel is heading for the third general election in less than one year: April 2019, September 2019 and now March 2020. I would like to write about one aspect of this unprecedented reality that I think is important.

Voting age in Israel is 18. There are 18- and 19-year-olds who will be voting this coming March for the third time in their life. This is their first real-life encounter with the democratic process, and it is wildly different from anything their parents and grandparents ever experienced. The effects of this experience may have unpredictable effects on how they perceive and understand the workings of a democracy.

In a representative democracy, voters elect officials (120 in Israel’s case) who then have a few years (4 in Israel’s case) to run the country as they see fit and in accordance (hopefully) with the wishes of the voters that put them in their seats. Israel does not have a constitution; it has “basic laws” which require a special majority and act, in some specific areas, as a replacement for a constitution. The result is that the 120 parliament members have a wide remit to enact new legislation, some of it precedent-setting in nature. This power should come with responsibility.

The current, abnormal situation means that for the past year or so, parliament has been effectively paralyzed. In the absence of a functioning government there is almost no debate on any issues, let alone new legislation. Most if not all parliament members are busy securing their position within their parties , switching alliances, and campaigning for the next election. This campaigning has been getting uglier and uglier as the stalemate continued, with unprecedented levels of fear-mongering, incitement against different social groups and a general free-for-all attitude of “anything goes”.

My generation understands this is abnormal and generally does not view this ugly campaigning as the normal functioning of a parliament. But the young generation probably does not have the background and experience to make this distinction. They are exposed to the current “work” of parliamentarians and will likely confuse this for their role in a representative democracy.

The long-term effects of this real-life lesson in flawed democratic processes are unknown. The lack of exposure to a normal reality, where ideology and beliefs act as the foundations of a functioning democratic process, may taint the way this young generation values and respects elected officials. Already there is anecdotal evidence that many young people feel disenfranchised and do not intend to vote. “What for?” they ask, if this vote results once again in a stalemate and the people “up there” behave like the worst ruffians on the street?

A message our generation needs to pass on to the new one is that what is going on now is unusual and untypical. This is not how democracy should work. This is not how elected officials should behave. We should reinforce their belief in the system, in the hope that this annus horribilis will be over soon and normality shall return to prevail.

Non-Pushy Sales

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

Business is business anywhere in the world. But in Japan, sales is mostly a non-pushy affair. As a consumer I have seldom experienced discomfort in face of companies or salespeople trying to sell me something forcefully. ‘Customer is king’ is more than a slogan here. It extends also to not making the customer feel uncomfortable, which is consistent with the general attitude of avoiding conflict at all costs.

A couple of experiences I had may illustrate this approach.

Recently, I was interested in a certain shampoo I came across in a hotel chain that I stay at quite often. I couldn’t find it online, so I wrote the company to ask about it. The reply I received was that this particular brand was sold only to institutions (such as hotels) and is therefore not available for me to buy as a private consumer.

Most Japanese would have probably left it at that. But I had a feeling this response was not the full story. So I wrote back, asking “do you have a similar product that is available for private consumers?”. And, lo and behold, the answer was: “yes, we have brand X, which is essentially the same and is available to buy online”.

This was not surprising. I asked about a specific brand and I got a specific answer. It had not occurred to him/her to leverage this opportunity to sell me another brand of shampoo I didn’t ask for. Only when I asked specifically about other brands, did the answer I wanted to hear emerge.

Another time I was at the bank for a specific reason, and the clerk ever so hesitatingly asked if I would be interested in a foreign currency deposit offering some interest. I was interested. But the point is that the money had been sitting there for over a year (!) and nobody at the bank thought of calling me or sending me a letter to let me know about this deposit. So, at times, this non-pushy approach can be somewhat annoying…

Tohoku Road Trip: Sendai to Aomori

Seeking cooler weather in the insufferable Japanese summer, I spent this year’s Obon week (a traditional holiday in the middle of August) in the Tohoku region of northern Japan. Weather was hot initially, but then, thanks to a typhoon passing over Western Japan, most days were thankfully much cooler.

Below is a description of my itinerary, a total drive of 1,250km in one week. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment here, or email me.

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Day 1: Yamagata Prefecture > Sendai

Day 2: Sendai City

Day 3: Miyagi Prefecture to Iwate Prefecture

Day 4: Iwate Prefecture > Akita Prefecture

Days 5-6: Akita Prefecture

Day 7: Akita > Aomori Prefecture

Day 1: Yamagata Prefecture to Sendai

I flew from Itami aiport in Osaka to Sendai airport, picked my rental car, and headed west to Yamagata Prefecture. In the first half day I visited two spots there:

Yamadera. In the mountains to the north of Yamagata City is Yamadera, a small village famous for the eponymous Buddhist temple located up in the mountain overlooking the village. The temple  (official name: Risshakuji) is more than a thousand years old, and to get to it one needs to climb about 1,000 stairs. The temperature down in the valley was higher than 30c, but the stairs wind up through a thick forest so the temperature drops somewhat (unfortunately the humidity does not).

The most essential item here in summer (after liquids) is a small towel, to wipe the sweat off the face every minute or so, while uttering desperate cries of atsui ne! (“it’s hot, isn’t it?”). I forgot my small towel in the car but bought one in a gift shop before starting the climb. The heat and humidity made me think about deserting halfway to the top, but I looked around and saw a multitude of octogenarians climbing stoically beside me, so I didn’t dare give up… There are several other temples along the way, as well as an interesting rock formation into which visitors wedge coins.

The climb is worth it. Although the temple itself is not overwhelming (aside from its old age), the view of the valley from Godaido Hall, an open wooden terrace at the top, is breathtaking. Unhindered by any building or trees, the breeze up there is also a most welcome bonus after the climb.

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Statuettes at Yamadera

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The climb up to Yamadera

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Coins inserted into the rock

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Yamadera village – View from Yamadera temple

Ginzan Onsen. Further north is the onsen (hot spring) town of Ginzan (“silver mountain”), so named after a silver mine that used to operate here. The center of this tiny town is a pedestrian-only area, and is very picturesque. Old wooden houses, most of them ryokans (Japanese-style hotels) and restaurants line up the sides of the main street, at the center of which runs a small, steaming stream.

My intent was to soak in one of the two public baths here. But I arrived a few minutes before 5pm, only to find out that the baths close at 5pm… What a disappointment! I had to make do with the foot bath in the center of the town. As dusk approached, the gas lights along the street lit up, and the ryokan guests strolled up and down in their yukatas (traditional robes) and gettas (wooden sandals) searching for a place to have dinner. It must be extra beautiful here in winter, when the entire place is covered in snow.

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Ginzan onsen entrance

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Ginzan onsen view

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An old building at Ginzan onsen

When done at Ginzan Onsen, I retraced my route back to Sendai, to arrive at my hotel in the center of the city.

Day 2: Sendai City

Sendai is the major city in Miyagi prefecture. With a population of just over 1 million, it is the 2nd largest city north of Tokyo. The first thing that strikes a visitor is the number and size of trees that line up the main avenues in the center of the city. These majestic zeikova trees have given Sendai the nickname mori-no miyako (“city of forest/trees”). In summer, Sendai is most famous for the Tanabata Festival, but I missed it by one week so I spent the day taking in the major sightseeing sites.

AER Building Observatory. After my morning coffee at the beautifully decorated Tullys Coffee in front of Sendai Station, I crossed the street to take the elevator up to the 31st floor of the AER building, which is next to the station. The free observatory offers views of the city from high up in three directions, so it’s a good way to start (or end) the exploration of the city.

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AER building

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View of shinkansen tracks from AER building

Daikannon Statue. Standing at 100m northwest of the city, the Daikannon Statue is a permanent feature of Sendai. Because it’s on a hill, you can see it from almost anywhere in the city. Kannon (or Guanyin in Chinese) is a Buddhist female bodhisattva, revered throughout Asia. This godzilla-sized white statue (purportedly the 6th tallest statue in the world) holds a water flask in her hand (symbolizing the water of wisdom) and what looks like a ball in the other hand. Most bizarrely, the necklace around her neck is the Magen David (Star of David), an hexagram which later became the symbol of Judaism (and appears on the flag of Israel). People who wish to get married come to Kannon to pray, and behind the statue is a small temple where they hang up their wishes for a good partner.

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Daikannon statue

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Entrance to Daikannon statue

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Prayers for marriage

Rinnoji Temple. Not to be confused with the eponymous temple in Nikko, Sendai’s Rinnoji temple boasts a beautiful Japanese garden and a pagoda. Founded in the 15th century by the Date clan (that ruled the area for a long time), it is a great place to wander around and relax from the bustle of the city.

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Rinnoji temple

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At Rinnoji temple

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The bell at Rinnoji temple

Osaki Hachimangu Shrine. Moving from Buddhism to Shinto, the Osaki Hachimangu Shrine was also founded by the Date clan, highlighting the laissez-faire attitude of Japanese theology (basically, anything goes). Hachiman is the deity of war and therefore the protector of the city. The shrine is lacquered in vivid colors, and some of the omikuji (fortune-telling papers) sold here are black, something I’ve never seen before. There was a practice going on for some ritual, with musicians, singers and beautifully-clad dancers.

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Entrance to Osaki Hachiman shrine

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Dancers practicing at Osaki Hachiman shrine

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Daruma dolls at Osaki Hachiman shrine

Jozenji-Dori / Ichibancho. Back to the center of the city, I took a walk after lunch through the main thoroughfares and shopping streets. As in many other Japaneses cities, these covered shoten-gais (shopping streets) run for several blocks and intersect with each other, making it a shopping heaven for locals and visitors alike. With an approaching typhoon threatening Western Japan, the weather had cooled down considerably, so walking around was quite pleasant considering this is mid-August in Japan…

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A barber shop that will make you handsome

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Entrance to a shop at Ichibancho

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Segafredo cafe at Ichibancho

Zuihoden. The founding feudal lord of the aforementioned Date clan, Date Masamune, built a mausoleum for his family in Sendai, called Zuihoden. Several buildings and burial sites dot this hillside complex and it was a fitting end to my day of wanderings in Sendai.

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Entrance to Zuihoden

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At Zuihoden grounds

Day 3: Miyagi Prefecture > Iwate Prefecture

Got up early today to head north, as I knew there would be a lot of driving to do. It was cloudy with the occasional downpour (Sendai got the northern “side” of they typhoon).

Matsushima Bay. Just outside Sendai, on the Pacific coast, lies Matsushima Bay. The bay has many small, forested islets and the view from the shore is so beautiful that it’s been voted as one of Japan’s top three scenic views (alongside Miyajima in Hiroshima, and Amanohashidate in Kyoto). Cruises that tour the bay are available, but I didn’t have time for that (and it was cloudy and foggy anyway), so instead I walked across a small bridge (reconstructed after the 2011 tsunami) onto Oshima Island. As I was there early I had this island to myself and took a leisurely walk among the pine trees to take photos of the bay.

Matsushima itself is a pretty touristy, with many shops and restaurants (and Chinese tourists). The symbol of this small town is the Godaido Buddhist temple, easily accessible from the main street. The temple contains five statues, but these are apparently displayed to the public only once every few 33 years for some obscure reason. Surprisingly, the temple – which is located on an exposed islet – did not suffer any major damage during earthquake and tsunami.

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Bridge to Oshima island

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Matsushima bay

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Matsushima bay

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Lanterns at Godaido temple

Ishinomaki. This medium-sized city has nothing to offer to tourists, but it became a symbol of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I drove up to Hiyoriyama Park, that overlooks the coastal area where the massive tsunami waves came in. It is a huge construction site, although new bylaws prevent the building of houses there (only businesses). Unbeknownst to me, this was to be a preview of what I would see during the entire course of the day, while driving from Miyagi to Iwate: kilometer after kilometer of construction sites, to rebuild the incomprehensible damage caused by this natural disaster, that claimed the lives of more than 18,000 people and caused life-changing traumas to countless more.

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View from Hiyoriyama park

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Construction at Ishinomaki bay

Okawa Elementary School. Perhaps the most remembered tragedy of the tsunami is the Okawa Elementary School, located north of the city. It saw the deaths of more than 80 pupils and their teachers, who were covered by the waves of the tsunami that struck on March 11th, just after 3:30pm. Last year I read the book ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, by British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry, which tells the story of this tragedy and its aftermath (the families, the legal battle for compensation). Many believe that the children could have been saved, had the teachers led them up the hill behind the school after the earthquake struck and before the tsunami wave arrived. The gutted school building remains standing, as an overbearingly sad memorial to the young souls that were lost here.

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At Oakawa elementary school

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Stools in a classroom

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Blackboard and flowers

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Statue erected on the grounds of Oakawa elementary school

Kesennuma. Another symbol of the 2011 tsunami is the fishing port city of Kesennuma, which sustained heavy damage and is still being rebuilt. Many ships were carried inland here by the unstoppable force of the tsunami wave. I stopped here to walk around the port area and have a coffee at the iconic K-Port Cafe. This restaurant-cafe was founded by famous Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (‘The Last Samurai’, ‘Godzilla’, ‘Transformers’), to support the resurrection of Kesennuma from the devastation of the tsunami. It was designed by renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito. Letters from Watanabe are displayed in the cafe, for patrons to read. To the north of Kesennuma is Mount Anbasan, which offers nice views of the city and the port.

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K-Port cafe at Kesennuma

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Kesennuma port after the reconstruction

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Kesennuma from mount Anbasan

Miracle Pine. Further up north, near the small city of Rikuzentakata, stands a lone pine tree, dubbed the ‘Miracle Pine’. The city was basically wiped off the map by the tsunami, and it is now being rebuilt but raised by about 10 meters. The shore had more than 70,000 pine trees, and this one tree was the only one that survived the power of the waves. Standing 27 meters tall, the tree died about two years after the tsunami, and was preserved and reinstalled as a symbol of perseverance and hope. It now stands surrounded by a vast area of reconstruction, and many tourists walk the nearby road to take a look at this tree.

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The Miracle Pine amid the reconstruction

Goishi Coast. My last stop for the day, before spending the night near Ofunato, was Goishi coast. An observation area provides stunning views of the rocky waterline, with the waves rushing in between the rocky formations and creating a marvelous combination of views and sounds.

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Goishi coast

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Goishi coast

A note about driving in this area of Tohoku. Because of the tsunami, old roads are being repaved and new roads are being paved. This means that navigation systems that rely on periodic map updates are quite useless. My car had such a system, and after a while I realized I need to check the itinerary with Google Maps, which is much more up to date. For example, the main route going north from Miyagi through Iwate is route 45, but now there’s a new expressway (E45), which runs more or less in parallel, and is toll-free.

Day 4: Iwate Prefecture > Akita Prefecture

Started early again today, as I was planning another long driving day along the Sanriku Coast, famous for its scenic views, especially cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Turned out to be shorter than expected, reason below.

Jodogahama Beach (Miyako). Driving up the coast from Ofunato, I reached Miyako, another name many recall from the news in 2011. I headed to Jodogahama beach, which is a forested area which has several short hiking paths, that lead to observation points and to the beach itself, which is mostly a pebble beach. It was quite foggy so the view was partial. There is a boat cruise that takes you to a ‘blue cave’ and offers views of the cliffs from the ocean, but there were many people waiting so I gave it a pass.

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Wall built to contain tsunami waves

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Jodogahama beach

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Overlooking foggy Jodogahama beach

Kitayamazaki Coast. The shoreline north of Miyako is famous for its cliffs, so I headed to the first one: Unosu Cliff. There’s a car park south of the cliffs, and then a 15-minute walk though the forest to the observation deck. When I got there, this was the view:

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Foggy view from Unosu cliff

 

It was then I realized that this was not the day to see Kitayamazaki Coast… I gave up on my drive north, and instead headed west.

Ryusendo Cave. About an hour from the coast is the town of Iwaizumi, famous for its limestone caves. Ryusendo is the largest of them, and one of the most impressive caves in Japan. It is a labyrinth of caverns that run deep into the rocky mountain. Only a short section is open to the public, and the public turned out in droves to see it. The temperature inside drops to around 10c, a welcome relief from the heat outside, but it quickly becomes quite chilly. The 700 meter long path inside the mountain is at times very narrow and at times quite wide. The most interesting feature are the three underground ‘lakes’ that can be viewed from the top. They are lit from within with colored lights, which makes for quite a surreal experience. The water is very clear.

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Inside Ryusendo cave

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Looking down at an underground lake in Ryusendo cave

Morioka. The largest city in Iwate (population 300,000), Morioka sits more or less in the center of Tohoku, between the two coasts. There’s nothing much to do here, and as I was here before (as a base for visiting Kakunodate, the samurai town, during cherry blossom season), I didn’t linger for long. I took a stroll through Iwate Park, where the former castle stood, and visited the local courthouse to see the rock-breaking cherry tree (ishiwarizakura). This 400 year old tree grows out of a huge granite rock, and is so extensive it needs various wooden poles to support its sprawling branches. It must be quite awesome when it blooms.

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The rock-breaking cherry tree in Morioka

Lake Tazawa. Further east into Akita prefecture is lake Tazawa, or Tazawako. It’s a large caldera lake with beautifully blue waters. It is Japan’s deepest lake: 423 meters. I drove around the lake, making two stops: the Goza-no-ishi Shrine and the Statue of Tatsuko. The former is an unassuming shrine overlooking the water. The second is a golden statue of a woman. The local legend is that this beautiful young lady prayed for eternal beauty but instead she turned into a dragon and drowned to the bottom of the lake (the Japanese version of Loch Ness I guess). Completing my tour around the lake I headed to my hotel in the mountains, to relax in the local onsen.

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Torii of Goza-no-Ishi shrine on Lake Tazawa

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Goza-no-Ishi Shrine on Lake Tazawa

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Statue of Tatsuko on Lake Tazawa

Days 5-6: Akita Prefecture

Today I planned a day of soaking in hot water. I headed up the mountain above Tazawako, to the Nyuto Onsen area (the name means ‘nipple’, and is apparently derived from the shape of the mountain). There are many ryokans here that offer a day pass to try their hot springs. So I did an “onsen crawl”, sampling four places. Entrance fees for each onsen are 600-800 Yen, and they are typically open from around 10am to 5pm.

Ganiba Onsen. This is a relatively modern ryokan that has both indoor and outdoor baths. The outdoor bath is a short walk into the woods, beyond a small stream. Understandably, photography is not allowed in these places, but as I was alone here (opening time is 9am, and I was there first), I managed to take a photo of the rotemburo (open air bath). The water here is clear. and the experience of bathing in nature is pretty authentic.

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Rotemburo (outdoor hot spring) at Ganiba onsen

Tae-no-Yu. This is an upscale ryokan and the facilities are very nice. Again, both indoor and outdoor baths. The open air one has two baths: a small clear one, and a murky, yellowish one. They both overlook a three-step waterfall, which makes for a pleasant backdrop while soaking. It started raining a bit when I was here, always a welcome addition when soaking in outdoor onsens.

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Slippers at entrance to Tae-no-Yu

Kuro-yu. This one is quite remote and you need to walk down a path from the car park to get to the old ryokan. The bath complex is behind the hotel, with a small indoor bath and a small outdoor one. The scenery here is not remarkable and the place looks a little run down.

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Entrance to Kuro-Yu

Tsuru-no-Yu. This is the oldest onsen in the area, more than 300 years old. It’s quite popular and was the busiest one I visited. Access is up a 3km road up the forested mountain, which at parts is nothing but a narrow gravel track. There are a few small indoor baths, but the real attraction here is the big rotemburo which features milky water and a floor covered with black pebbles. There were perhaps 15 bathers here, but still there was ample room for each one. It was raining pretty heavily by now, so the experience was perfect.

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Entrance to Tsuru-no-Yu

Feeling perfectly clean and relaxed I left the Nyuto Onsen area to drive down to Akita, the main city in Akita prefecture (population 315,000).

I spent Shabbat at Akita city, staying at – you guessed correctly – a hotel with an onsen. During Shabbat I took a short walk around the central area of the city, which basically means the train station and Senshu Park, site of a former castle. Akita truly is a small city…

Day 7: Akita Prefecture > Aomori Prefecture

For my last day, I drove up the coast on route 101 from Akita towards Aomori Prefecture. The scenery was rice paddies on the right and a rocky coastline dotted with camping sites on the left.

Noshiro. My first stop was Noshiro, a sleepy town about 60km north of Akita. I stopped there only because the wife of a friend of mine is originally from here, so I snapped a few photos for him. Funnily enough, right next to the train station is the ‘Noshiro Tourist Information Center’. It was closed, so I guess I’ll never know what tourists can do in Noshiro.

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At Noshiro port

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At Noshiro port

Nihon Canyon and Juniko. Further up the coast, and after entering Aomori Prefecture, is Juniko. As the name implies, it is a collection of twelve small lakes and ponds (ju-ni is 12). The road from the coast to Juniko winds up the mountain, and is closed during winter. But my first stop before reaching the lakes, was Nihon Canyon, a mini (really mini, really really mini) version of Grand Canyon I guess. From the small car park it’s a short (0.5km) but steep climb up a narrow walking trail to an observation platform which provides a view of the rock face. I was there all alone and it felt extremely peaceful and quiet… except for the cicadas of course. A short drive from here are the Juniko lakes. Frankly, not much to write home about, so I didn’t stay long.

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The entrance to the trail leading to Nihon Canyon

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Nihon Canyon

My original plan was to drive from here to Aomori City and wander around a bit before heading to the airport. But after my experience at Akita City, I feared that another small, rural town would now have to offer much (and the online guides indeed did not have much to say about Aomori). So instead I headed to Hirosaki.

Hirosaki is a small town that has a castle (well, technically, only one keep) at its center. But the redeeming feature of this place is the lovely Fujita Memorial Garden, adjacent to the castle grounds. This garden was built about 100 years ago and is divided into two sections. In the upper section is a typical Japanese landscape garden with a tea house. The lower section has a small waterfall and a pond with koi (carp) swimming around. There were only a few people around, so despite the oppressive heat (32c) and humidity, it was a nice place to wind down after my load road trip, before heading to Aomori airport for my flight back to Osaka.

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Hirosaki castle keep

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Fujita Memorial Garden

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Fujita Memorial Garden

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Fujita Memorial Garden

One last word of caution for those returning a rental car at Aomori airport. The closest gas stations are about 8-10km from the airport. I made the mistake of thinking there must be gas stations at, or near, the airport. There weren’t any, so I had to head back out for refueling.

Home Delivery

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

Japan is notorious for its home delivery service. Whether you buy something in a bricks-and-mortar store or in an online store, you can have it delivered to your home. There are several leading delivery companies, and all of them provide outstanding service.

You can set the time of delivery, typically within windows of 2-4 hours. The delivery will arrive in that window.  If you’re not home, they will leave a note in the mailbox and you can reschedule another delivery time. I’ve happened to reschedule 3-4 times due to absence from home, and no problem. In the five years I’ve been here, I can recall one instance when the delivery did not come on time. It arrived a couple of hours early…

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Kuroneko Yamato Delivery Woman

Today I had a new experience which highlights how accurate and reliable this service is. My wife and I made two separate orders online, in different stores, and they both happened to be delivered by the same delivery company. I entered a 2-4pm window; my wife entered a 6-8pm window. We did this independently of each other, not knowing about each other’s order.

My delivery arrived around 2:30pm. The delivery man made me sign for my parcel. He then pointed to another parcel and said: “This is for your wife, but she asked for it to be delivered this evening. Are you willing to accept it, or should I come back in a few hours?”

Of course I took it from him. But had I said “please come back later, when she’s home”, he wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

 

Pirkei Avot 6,4

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

Such is the way of the Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink, and you shall sleep on the ground, and your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor. If you do this, “Happy shall you be and it shall be good for you” (Psalms 128). “Happy shall you be” – in this world, “and it shall be good for you” – in the world to come.

1.

Although it is written in the same style as the first five chapters of Pirkei Avot, the sixth chapter is not part of the original Mishna. It was added later, mainly because there are six weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, and so we need a sixth chapter to learn on the last Shabbat. It is called קנין תורה, i.e. how one goes about to “acquire” Torah, and is therefore appropriate for learning on the Shabbat just before Shavuot, the festival on which the Torah was given to us.

2.

The ways of the Torah, or the way to live a life of Torah, is presented in somewhat stark colours in our mishnah. Rashi and Rambam say that these words are directed towards the poor person, who may think that because he has no money, he is exempt from learning because of his pursuit for livelihood. Even if all one has to eat is some bread with salt, one should still find the time to learn Torah, for, as we say in our evening prayers daily: it is our life and determines how long we will live.

3.

The opposite is also true. A rich man may be so preoccupied with managing his wealth, or with enjoying the good life, that he may “forget” to carve out time for learning Torah. The Talmud warns that the Torah is real and lasting only if a person will “give his life” for it. Not literally of course, but in the sense that one needs to put his life aside – not matter how good it may be – and find time to learn.

4.

The right path is the middle path, as the Rambam taught us. This mishnah teaches us how to reach this path. Not by leading an extreme life – whether it may be a life of asceticism or a life of indulgence in worldly pleasures – but rather a life that strikes the correct balance. Because human beings, by nature, will tend to pursue a life of worldly pleasure rather than a life of asceticism, the mishnah gives us ways to counter this natural tendency. We need not necessarily eat only bread with salt or sleep on the floor, but we should utilize these methods to counter our tendency for seeking (too much) pleasure.

5.

The mishnah then stresses “if you do this”. Attaining the right balance is a personal choice, borne out of our free will. One cannot be coerced into living a life of Torah. It is incumbent upon us to reach that decision and act upon it. Therefore, the stress is on the “you”; it cannot come from an external source. Furthermore, “you” here appears in the singular form in Hebrew. This is a decision we make on our own, and not as a collective. Yes, we can (and should) learn with others, but the decision to lead a life of Torah is a personal one, not a communal one.

This concludes my short posts about Pirkei Avot. May these words be in remembrance of my parents, of blessed memory.

Pirkei Avot 5,7

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

There are seven characteristics in a fool, and seven in a wise man: A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom and number; and does not break into his fellow’s speech; and is not hasty to answer; he asks what is relevant, and he answers to the point; and he speaks of the first point first, and of the last point last; and concerning that which he has not heard, he says: I have not heard; and he acknowledges the truth. And the reverse of these characteristics are in a fool.

1.

The Hebrew word for “fool” in our mishnah is Golem (גלם), which can be translated in many ways: dummy, fool, clod, oaf. The most famous golem in history is of course the Golem of Prague. Interestingly, the numerical value of גלם is equivalent to that of the Hebrew word for wisdom (חכמה), i.e. 73. Some have gone as far as to say that a גלם is indeed wise, but unlike a wise man he does not take pride in his wisdom because he realizes it’s all from God. This turns the mishnah on its head, and this is why it opens with the golem and not the wise man.

2.

A person can be greater in wisdom or in number (age), or in both. Out of respect for old age, Moshe asks God to send his older brother, Aharon, instead of him, to Egypt. But “number” can also mean the number of students or disciples: the greater this number, the greater is the wisdom of the teacher. We learn this from several places in the Bible and the Mishnah, for example: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man” (Avot 4,1).

3.

Not interrupting another person while he’s talking is something many of us fail at. The Midrash says that when God spoke to Aharon and Miriam about their conversation regarding Moshe, they wanted to interrupt God to justify themselves. God reprimanded them using our mishnah, and we should all learn from this characteristic of God.

4.

Answering in order of the things we were asked (FIFO) is also something many of us fail at (preferring LIFO). We learn this characteristic from Rivkah, who was asked several questions by Eliezer (who’s daughter are you, is there a place to spend the night), and answered in the order of these questions. We also learn this from God himself at the burning bush: Moshe asks “who am I to go to Egypt, and who am I to free the people of Israel”, and God answers in the order of the questions.

5.

Another difficult thing for us to do is to not answer when we don’t know the answer. Again we learn this from Moshe. Four times in the Torah, Moshe is asked a question to which he doesn’t know the answer to, and instead of letting the people off with some reply, he asks them to wait while he goes and ask God. In the Talmud, when the sages have a debate with gentiles regarding astronomy, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi admitted that the gentiles’ opinions are more correct than those of the sages. Rabbi Avraham, son of Rambam, holds that this is the reason Rabbi Yehuda is called Kadosh (holy).

6.

But perhaps the most difficult directive for us to follow is acknowledging the truth, even if it goes against our opinion. Again we turn to Moshe for guidance. After telling off Aharon (on the day his sons die) about transgressing some law regarding the eating of the sacrifices, he then listens to Aharon’s reply and the Torah says: “Moshe heard and it was good in his eyes”. He admitted he was wrong in the face of truth. The same goes for Yehuda, son of Yaakov, who accepts the words of his daughter-in-law, Tamar, despite him being able to sentence her to death with impunity and escape public embarrassment.

7.

The seven characteristics listed in our mishnah follow a natural progression. First one needs to let a wiser/older person speak. Then, as he speaks, one must not interrupt. After he finishes talking, one must pause before answering. And when answering, one must answer in proper order. If in doubt about an answer, one must say “I don’t know”. And if, after answering, the other side replies with a truthful argument, one must accept the truth. Indeed, wise advice. May we all be able to heed it.

Pirkei Avot 4,1

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

Ben Zoma said:

Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding”.

Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city”.

Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper”; “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come.

Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored”.

This mishnah was said by Ben Zoma, third generation of the tana’im and one of the four sages who entered the pardes. Even though he was not officially a rabbi, he was held in high esteem by his peers, who said that if one dreamt of Ben Zoma one should expect wisdom. So it is befitting that the first definition here deals with “who is a wise man”.

1.

To be wise, we need to be able to learn from any person. Easier said than done… If we can overcome our pride and learn from others, that is proof that we value wisdom for wisdom’s sake and not for personal motives. Note that the mishnah does not ask “what is the way to gain wisdom”, but rather “who is a wise person”. A person who reaches this level of accepting wisdom from anyone is fit to be called wise.

2.

In Hebrew we refer to a person who studies Torah and has accumulated knowledge as a תלמיד חכם, literally “a wise student”. On one hand, even if you are only a student, by dedicating yourself to learning you are already called wise. On the other hand, even if you are the most erudite, wisest learner of Torah, you will always be a student. A wise man knows that there is no end to learning.

3.

Many mistake physical strength or military bravery for true might. The prophets and our sages have repeatedly stressed the definition of true might: overcoming one’s evil inclinations. Anyone can be brave in battle; even the Nazi soldiers exhibited bravery in the battlefield. But staying true to yourself and overcoming your basest desires is a much more difficult form of bravery. One version of this mishnah reads “who is the mightiest of the mighty”, to stress that there are many types of mighty people, but this person is the mightiest of them all.

4.

Another pitfall for the mighty is pride. It is said that when Roman generals paraded through the streets of Rome after their victories, a slave would stand behind them and whisper in their ear: “Look beyond you (after your death), and remember you are only a man”. Succumbing to pride after displays of might is what the verse from Mishlei (quoted in our mishnah) warns us about: ruling your spirit is infinitely harder than capturing a city in war.

5.

But our evil inclination is also a necessary reality. The Talmud tells us of the time when rabbis were able to capture and imprison the evil inclination of sexual desires. Soon thereafter, hens stopped laying eggs. This is why our mishnah says we should subdue our inclination, not eliminate it. We should channel it to positive and holy uses, subduing it to our will and not vice versa.

6.

The word for material wealth in Hebrew is עושר. The word for joy or happiness is אושר. They sound the same to the untrained ear. But if you are unhealthy, you cannot be happy. Some allude to this by breaking down the letters in the word rich (עשיר) to: eyes (עיניים), teeth (שיניים), arms (ידיים) and legs (רגליים). When you are not healthy, all the money in the world will not make you happy. The Talmud says that a sick person is defined as poor, even if he is materially rich.

7.

Even if a person attains all above three qualities – wisdom, might, wealth – they are not sufficient for him to be truly respected by others. One needs to respect others in order to be respected himself. Even if we have achieved a lot in life, we should constantly pause and examine whether we have not allowed these achievements to impact the way we treat others.

Pirkei Avot 3,15

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

(Rabbi Akiva said:) Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted. And the world is judged with goodness. And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works. (Avot 3,15)

The short saying by Rabbi Akiva (1st century C.E.) opening our Mishna (4 words in Hebrew: הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה) has been the source of dozens of commentaries, all trying to deal with the inherent paradox of determinism and free will. Rambam states that this saying “includes a great many things, and it befitting for Rabbi Akiva to have said it”.

1.

The paradox between God’s omniscience and man’s free will is exemplified in many verses in the Bible. For example, the prophet Yirmiyahu (23,24) quotes God as posing two rhetorical questions: “Can anyone hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? said the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? said the Lord”. This implies that even in the most hidden of places God knows all. And yet we read in the Torah (Devarim 30,15) God’s words: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil”. He sees all, but He still gives us the freedom to choose what to do.

2.

Rambam quotes another verse from the same chapter in the Torah (Devarim 30,9): “And you shall choose life”. We have a choice, but as mortal human beings we do not know this choice in the same way that God knows it. Just as we cannot fully comprehend the existence of God, so we cannot grasp the nature of His knowledge. As the prophet Yishayahu says (55,8): “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, said the Lord.” This inability is the source of the gap between His omniscience and our freedom of choice.

3.

Another way to look at this conundrum is through the concept of time. For us humans, time is a linear concept: past, present and future. But God is beyond time, as described in the Adon Olam hymn: “Eternal master who reigned supreme, before all of creation was made”, and He is also “without beginning, without end.” From God’s viewpoint, all our decisions are known as there is no concept of the future in His eyes.

4.

Some sages reconcile determinism with free will by separating nature from nurture. A person is born with certain traits that were predetermined by God. For example, a person might be born with a proclivity to kill, as the Talmud says in Shabbat (156.): “One who is born under the influence of Mars will be one who spills blood.” But the choice of what to do with this nature is up to each individual (and how his parents and teachers guide him). One may choose the wrong path and become a murderer. Or one may choose the right path and become a butcher (who spills blood, but for a benign purpose).

5.

The continuation of our mishna speaks about how God judges the world with goodness. This is also befitting of Rabbi Akiva, who started studying Torah at the age of 40 from a man called Nachum Ish Gamzu. It is told of this man that he was poor and could not afford to sleep in the city, so he had to sleep outdoors in the wild. The wind blew out his candle, the cat ate his chicken, and the lion ate his donkey. But when he woke up in the morning he found out that the city was overrun by an army and everyone in it was killed. Ish Gamzu then said his famous saying: “Everything that God does, He does for a good reason.”

6.

The end of our mishna speaks about the concept of doing good, and getting rewarded for it. Rambam interprets this not by quality but by quantity. The more a person repeats a good deed, the more he influences himself for good and becomes a better person. One who gives $1,000 to charity once has less influence on his own character than one who gives $1 to charity 1,000 times. Others, like the Maharal, disagree with the Rambam and say that a $1,000 charity is more significant and has more impact, both from perspective of the giver and that of the receiver.

7.

In conclusion, it is worth reminding ourselves of the words of Rambam regarding free will (Hilchot Teshuva ch. 5):

“Every man was endowed with a free will: if he desires to bend himself toward the good path and to be just it is within the power of his hand to reach out for it, and if he desires to bend himself to a bad path and to be wicked it is within the power of his hand to reach out for it. This is known from what it is written in the Torah, saying: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Bereshit 3,22)”

Pirkei Avot 2,13

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

Rabbi Shimon said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the prayer. And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God, for it is said: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment” (Yoel 2,13). And be not wicked in your own esteem. (Avot 2,13)

The rabbi of this mishna is Shimon ben Netanel HaCohen, a tana who lived in the first century C.E., a disciple of rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the son-in-law of Rabban Gamliel.

1.

There is a different version of this mishna that reads: “be careful with the reading of Shema more so than prayer”. The laws are that we have 3 hours (roughly) from sunrise to recite the Shema, but longer – 4 hours – to complete our morning prayers. Rabbi Shimon warns us to be careful not to miss the Shema as its time is shorter.

2.

A Chassidic interpretation of why we should be careful with Shema more than prayer is that during prayer (the shmone-esre) we mostly ask for things we need – health, sustenance, redemption. So we don’t need a special warning to be careful; when it comes to asking things for ourselves we are naturally careful. But the Shema is all about accepting the yoke of God with no reward in it for us, so we need to be warned to be careful with it.

3.

Additionally, we should be extra careful with both the Shema and prayer because their time is limited. Other mitzvot – such as teffilin or sukkah or shofar – can be fulfilled all day long, so we have time. Furthermore, many hold that Shema and prayer, unlike other mitzvot, require kavanah (specific direction of thought) in order to be fulfilled properly. Hence they require special attention.

4.

What is an “automatic prayer”? The Talmud gives several examples. Either the prayer seems like a burden to us. Or we don’t say the prayer as supplicants before God. Or we are unable to imbue every prayer with something new and different. In short, when prayer becomes a rote chore it is considered “automatic”.

5.

The verse from Yoel includes three types of prayer. “Slow to anger” is a prayer for God to save us from trouble, even if we have sinned. “Abounding in kindness” is a prayer for God to fulfill our wishes, even if we are not worthy. And “renouncing punishment” is a prayer for God to forgive us for our sins. All three prayers can be achieved through one of God’s traits, also mentioned in this verse: “gracious and compassionate”

6.

There is a special mitzvah to say the morning prayer exactly at sunrise (ha-netz). Because the sun rises at a different every day, by following this rule we fulfill the mitzvah of prayer at a different time every day. This ensures the prayer does not become “automatic” (the Hebrew keva also means “fixed”).

7.

The advice not to view ourselves as wicked seems to be counter-intuitive. If are not critical of ourselves, how can we improve? But the advice is not to be overly critical, not to see ourselves as totally bad. If we do so we might give up on correcting our bad ways and thus never make teshuvah. Just like the Talmudic story about Elisha ben Avuya, who erroneously overheard he has no chance for redemption and consequently gave up on himself.

Pirkei Avot 1,3

There is a custom to read Pirkei Avot (typically translated as Ethics of our Fathers) in the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot. Some say it’s preparation for the receiving of the Torah, others say that the long summer days are an opportunity for more learning on Shabbat. But there really is no need for a special reason to read and study the exceptional tractate of Avot at any time. Exceptional, both in the sense of it being a unique tractate in the Mishna (dealing with ethics and morality, not with laws) but also in the sense of it being a boundless and inexhaustible source of wisdom. I will try to write a few short thoughts about one mishna every week. May these thoughts be in memory of my parents: Shimon ben Chana & David z”l, Shulamit bat Clara & Shimon z”l.

Antigonos, man of Sokho, received from Shimon the Righteous. He would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” (Avot 1,3)

1.

The verse in Tehillim says: “Happy is the man that fears God, that delights greatly in His commandments.” The Talmud learns from this verse that we should delight in the commandments themselves, not in the reward we get for fulfilling them.

2.

The Hebrew word פרס is used for a reward a person gives when he has no legal obligation to do so, for example a gift. The mishna uses this word and not the word שכר, which is commonly used when referring to reward for fulfilling commandments, and denotes a reward one is entitled to. This highlights the fact that we should not expect even a gift when we fulfill God’s wishes.

3.

In seeming contradiction to our mishna, the Talmud says that a person who declares “this money I give to charity is for my son’s health or for me to get to the next world”, is a righteous person. He is indeed righteous, but his expectation for a reward is a lower form of worship, as many of us are incapable of the higher form of wishing for no reward. This is related to the famous Talmudic edict: “A person should always engage in Torah study and in performance of mitzvot even if he does so not for their own sake. Because through such acts performed not for their own sake, one will eventually come to perform them for their own sake.”

4.

It is told of the Vilna Gaon who found a nice etrog for Sukkot, but the merchant would sell it to him only under the condition that all of the rabbi’s mitzvot would “transfer” to his own credit. The Vilna Gaon happily agreed, saying that now he has satisfied the edict of our mishna, as he would be fulfilling the mitzva of Sukkot with no reward whatsoever.

5.

In the Torah, the people of Israel are called “sons of God” (“בנים אתם לה’ אלוהיכם”). Children know they can err as their father will always forgive them. Therefore, our mishna tells us to see ourselves as servants, not as sons, before God. We should be fearful that our master will not be so forgiving.

6.

The Talmud tells us that when rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was on his deathbed, his disciples asked for a blessing. He told them: “May it be God’s will that your fear of Heaven be like your fear of mortals.” The disciples were puzzled at this: “is that all?!”, so he explained: “If only it were so! Know that when a person transgresses, he says, ‘May no man see me.’” We often fear our fellow man more than we fear God.