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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turning Forty

This week I turned forty. While brooding about this momentous milestonein my life, I Googled "turning forty" and came across this article in The Guardian from 2003. Out of sheer boredom I decided to check which of these "40 things about turning 40" applied to me and which did not:

1 Gardening is suddenly good.

  • Hmmm... It's true that this year I finally have a garden I can call my own, but as for gardening, I'm not quite there yet.

2 As is Schubert.

  • Schubert was always good, not suddenly so.

3 The prospect of dancing in public is terrifying.

  • Always was for me.

4 You hiss when mobile phones go off at the Titian exhibition.

  • (I had to look up "Titian exhibition"). I've always been fond of giving the dirty look to people who forget to silence their phones in movies, theatres, etc. One of the deadliest social combinations is an Israeli with mobile phone.

5 You have a Party Seven stomach rather than a six-pack.

  • I'll pass on this one.

6 You know what Party Seven means.

  • Hah! Now it's clear why I didn't understand #5. I have no clue what "party seven" means.

7 Your younger colleagues think your libido requires chemical enhancement, or that it's OK to make jokes about the probability that it does. The unfeeling brutes. (This may just be a guy thing.)

  • I have had Viagra recommended to me, but I'm proud to say I never had the need to try it.

8 You buy more chart CDs than ever (in an attempt to hang on in there) but still go home and slap on Prince's Sign o' the Times.

  • Haven't bought a CD in years (isn't that what MP3 is all about?) Never owned a Prince CD.

9 You start playing football.

  • Only since about a month ago, when I purchased GameCube FIFA '06 for my son and got caught up by the brilliant graphics of the game. Real football? Not in a million years.

10 You punch the next person who says "Denial isn't just a river in Africa, you know" and laugh when anyone uses the word "closure" in a purportedly emotionally insightful manner.

  • I actually never heard that one before ("denial"). Not bad. And yes, I find the americanism "closure" to be, like most americanisms, quite laughable.

11 You are more inclined to tell people to shut up.

  • I don't know about more inclined. Internally, I've been telling people to shut up since I remember myself.

12 If you're a guy, harmless office flirting may not be so harmless. You don't want to end up a dirty old man.

  • Luckily for me, I seldom go to work in the office.

13 You know that texting has passed you by.

  • Oh yes. Unfortunately, emailing on Blackberry has not.

14 You worry about rudeness, graffiti, the newspaper arriving late, the decline of public services and the possible truth in libido jibes.

  • All true, except the last one.

15 Moisturiser for men is the new wet-look hair gel.

  • Huh?

16 Thinking about death is the new thinking about nothing much.

  • Not quite there yet, I'm afraid.

17 You sit at traffic lights singing along to Barry White. Small boys with squeegees laugh at you. Screw them.

  • Who's Barry White?

18 When your boss asks you when you can do some urgent task, you feel more free to say: "How about never? Is never good for you?"

  • Oh, I've been saying that for ages. Internally, of course. I want to keep my job.

19 You think younger people who wear hooded sweatshirts with the hood up look stupid and sinister. You cross the street to avoid them.

  • Stupid, definitely. Sinister?

20 You go to the pub less often due to the belated realisation that it's rubbish and makes your clothes smell.

  • Never been much of a pub-goer, but yes, it is mostly rubbish and the smoke is terrible.

21 You are less certain of things than you used to be.

  • Oh, definitely so. And less certain every day that goes by.

22 You argue with the television. You always win.

  • I don't watch television, not for 5 years now. So as far as I'm concerned, I've already won.

23 Reading is the new staring into space.

  • Frankly, I can't remember when I last stared into space.

24 Board games are the new cocaine.

  • Sadly, I never really got the habit of playing board games.

25 Childcare is the new nightlife.

  • I thought this was about turning 40, not turning 30...

26 You find children less irksome than hitherto, and are less perturbed about making small talk with them.

  • Not sure about this one. I don't mind small talk with children, but I still find them irksome. Especially if they're not my children.

27 You increasingly find cryptic crossword puzzles diverting entertainment.

  • That's not me. That's my wife.

28 You're temperamentally incapable of using the following phrases: "Oh. My. God"; "And I'm like ..."; "And she's all ..."; "Whatever". But, oddly, not "Well, duh."

  • Not true, true, true, not true. And not true.

29 You're temperamentally incapable of doing high fives or other showy handshakes.

  • I high-five my kids all the time.

30 You find solace in birdsong.

  • Not much birdsong in my neck of the woods, I'm afraid.

31 You aren't surprised that the Cheeky Girls were spawned by Ceaucescu's Romania.

  • Cheeky Girls?

32 You wonder if you would be shopping at Dunn and Co if it was still going.

  • I have no clue what "Dunn and Co" was/is.

33 You pretend to care about J-Lo and Ben Affleck, subscribe to Heat magazine and have a Celebdaq account to stay in touch with celebrity culture, while simultaneously despising it.

  • I don't need to pretend; I simply don't give a damn.

34 You think nothing of spending £8 on a bottle of wine.

  • £8 = NIS66. True. Didn't realise that's a hefty amout for a bottle of wine.

35 You take a Thermos on demos.

  • Nope. Bottle of water.

36 Actually, the rugby's on. There are enough people on the march already.

  • Oh, I thought "demos" meant presentations to customers... Just goes to show how much work is affecting my ability to think straight. Haven't been to a "demo" since the peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995, the one prime minister Rabin was murdered at.

37 You write letters of complaint to Currys, Ikea, Norwich Union etc, while not expecting or receiving anything approaching a reply, civil or otherwise.

  • Well, not to these companies, but yes I do occasionally shake off my apathy and write a letter of complaint.

38 It's hardly ever quiet enough.

  • How true.

39 It can be too quiet.

  • Not in Israel.

40 You're going to die sooner than ever.

  • Thank you, The Guardian, for ending this on such a positive note...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Chayey Sarah - Stranger and Sojourner

ויקם אברהם מעל פני מתו וידבר אל בני חת לאמר: גר ותושב אנכי עמכם תנו לי אחוזת קבר עמכם ואקברה את מתי מלפני

(בראשית כ"ג, ג'-ד')

The parasha called "The Life of Sarah" begins with the death of Sarah. Avraham, after the period of mourning, sets about to find a suitable burial spot for his dead wife. He turns to the people of Chet, residents of the land, and says to them:

"I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight."

(Bereshit, 23, 5)

The words Avraham uses to describe himself - stranger (ger) and sojourner (toshav) - require some investigation. Why would Avraham label himself both a stranger and a sojourner? Perhaps we can learn a few things from this choice of words by Avraham.

Rashi, and many other commentators, explain that Avraham wanted to stress the fact that, although he is a stranger to the land, his intentions are to become a sojourner, a permanent resident. Therefore, his claim to be allocated a plot of land for burial purposes, something which a passing stranger cannot ask for, is justified. The Or HaChaim expands on this explanation by claiming (somewhat asynchronously) that Avraham was relying on the halacha that one is allowed to give a "ger toshav" a permanent gift, and that this halacha was binding also upon the people of Chet. Giving a burial plot to someone who has emigrated to live among you is considered "the done thing", part of the Natural Law; the halacha merely restates this law. Avraham demonstrated his friendly and neighbourly ways, for example by fighting the four kings to liberate the people of Sodom or by his insistence to take nothing from Avimelech, so he was right in expecting the locals to reciprocate in a fair and friendly manner.

But Rashi provides a further explanation. He quotes the Midrash that says that Avraham was in effect threatening the people of Chet: if you do not accept me as a stranger, I will take the land by force as a sojourner; it is rightfully mine, as was promised to me by God. Why would Rashi bring this Midrash? To understand this, we need to recall the first Rashi on the Torah, which quotes another Midrash: Why did the Torah start with the Creation story and not with the first mitzvah given to the People of Israel? Because nobody has an inalienable right to the land; the "promised land" is not a promise that is kept without any conditions. In fact, it depends on the will of God. When the people deserve the land, by walking in God's ways, they get it; if not, they don't. And indeed history proves this: the current situation, where Israel has been independent for almost 60 years, is an aberration in the thousands of years of Jewish history.

So Rashi is perhaps trying to tell us that although we have a divine promise to inherit the Land of Israel, this is a right that we cannot claim by force no matter what. Avraham's veiled threat comes with the plea of being a stranger that has demonstrated his willingness to live peacefully in the new land. Yes, the land has been promised to Avraham, but he knows he also needs to deserve it.

A final thought about the use of "stranger and sojourner" is from Rabbi Lichtenstein, who uses these words of Avraham to describe the existential dilemma of every human being. As humans, as lives are finite and we do not know when we will die. And yet at times we act as if we we will live for ever, making long-term plans and feeling (over)confident about ourselves. This paradox is highlighted by the story from Berachot: the sages were at a party and asked R. Himnuna to sing a song. He stood up and sang about how terrible is the day of our death (talk about a party spoiler). When asked by the stunned sages how they should respond to this, R. Himnuna answered that they should sing about our faith in God and his laws. By acting like he did. R. Himnuna illustrated not only the paradox of our short lives (we are "strangers" on this earth) coupled with our tendency to feel invincible (as real "sojourners"), but also the remedy for this existentialist conundrum: attach yourself to the real sojourner, the eternal one, in order to get by this life.

In summary, Avraham's use of the expression "ger ve'toshav" to describe himself teaches us a few things: that we should act in a neighbourly and honourable manner with the residents of the land; that we should not think our right to the land is unconditional, as it depends on our behaviour; and that to survive in this world we need to attach ourselves to God.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Fighting Toothpaste

New security measures are in effect in all airports in Europe. If one wants to take liquids or gels on board - e.g. toothpaste, deodorant, cream, lisptick, etc. - these need to be placed in a transparent, resealable plastic bag and taken out for security scanning. The liquids/gels need to be in containers of less than 100ml each, and no more than 1l in total.

I was unfortunate enough to be travelling to Europe on the day these new measures came into effect - Monday of last week. I went through four different European airports during the week and in all of them chaos reigned (except for Heathrow, where these measures are actually more lenient than the ones that were in effect for the past few months). The security lines were unbelievably long. The security personnel were busy checking containers to see whether the 100ml limitation was being violated, scarcely giving the passgengers themselves a second look. Debates raged between security personnel regarding whether this or that item qualified as liquid or gel. My instant shoe polish sponge was taken out from my carry-on as it contained a tiny capsule of shoe polish, which unfortunately was in liquid form.

In short, it is clear that the Western world has given up the fight against terrorism in favour of fighting toothpaste. I don't blame them. It is much easier to fight toothpaste than it is to fight terrorists...

On a more serious note, these security measures seem to indicate, once again, that the entire approach is wrong. In Ben Gurion airport, the security machines (x-ray, chemical scanner, etc.) are a secondary measure; the focus is on the PERSON and not on the LUGGAGE he or she are carrying. Security personnel question each passenger and only those that arouse suspicion or fit a certain profile are subject to a thorough search. Profiling, a taboo concept in the "enlightened" world, prevents Americans and Europeans from adopting this rational and effective approach to airport security. For them, a 90-year-old nun's bag poses the same security threat as that of a bearded youngster carrying a Pakistani passport. I whisk through security in Israel because I carry an Israeli passport and travel often, but my European colleagues - sharing this profile in their countries - must undergo the same security ordeal I go through as a foreigner in Europe. Their toothpaste is as suspicious as mine is...