Cosmological Koans for Katrina

 

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From the News Center at UC Santa Cruz:  “In his new book, Cosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality”, physicist Anthony Aguirre explores deep questions about the nature of reality, using an approach inspired by Zen koans to take the reader on a thought-provoking tour of the cosmos and the core ideas of modern physics.

In Zen Buddhism, koans are short parables or questions meant to confront the practitioner with the inadequacy of conventional concepts and habits of thought. Similarly, Aguirre’s “cosmological koans” confront the reader with the unexpected nature of the world as described by physics and the mind-boggling ways in which it differs from our subjective experience or intuitive understanding of things.

‘I wanted to convey that sense of mystery and wonder that comes from seeing reality in a new way,’ said Aguirre, a professor of physics and holder of the Faggin Family Presidential Chair for the Physics of Information at UC Santa Cruz.

The book covers a wide range of topics, woven together with a fictional story line that recounts a journey from Italy to Japan. Multiple universes, the nature of time, the meaning of quantum theory, and entropy and information are among the subjects explored in short chapters that manage to convey mind-bending ideas in a way that is accessible and entertaining.

The topics include some of the most challenging open questions in cosmology and physics, as well as concepts that have long been settled science yet remain disturbingly counterintuitive. With respect to the enduring mystery of time, for example, Einstein showed that there is no universal ‘now’—in other words, different observers can have different perceptions of whether two events are simultaneous.”

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Let’s explore the concept of time a bit further.  In Chapter 28, p. 210, Professor Aguirre writes that you don’t see the world as it is now, whether that “now” is cosmic or not.  The world you see around you is the world as it was in the past.  Viewing the leaf falling from a tree 50 meters away, you see the tree as it was 167 nanoseconds ago.

What does “now” mean?  In other words how do we define the present as distinct from the past or the future?  It’s a timeless question borne of metaphysics as much as physics.  As soon as you stop to identify that now is now, the moment has already passed into the past.  Perhaps the closest we can come is envisioning a pause button as the label for a given “time t” that occurs as an event in a particular space at a specific time.  But as we know, within our physical framework, there is no pause button.  The arrow of time is always moving forward.  The instant we reflect on the present it becomes the past, and the future is the next moment in time.

So if identifying the present is nearly a fleeting impossibility, would we have the audacity to imagine a perfect moment in time?  Art Garfunkel believes we can, and who am I to disagree?

In chapter 30, p. 226, Professor Aguirre turns his attention to the thorny question of Theodicy, or why a designer would create a world of beauty such as ours while allowing for unimaginable levels of pervasive suffering.   This leads the good professor to contemplate the multiverse, and that the universe we inhabit is one among many – merely the one that is most inhabitable to us.  That thinking is in line with Leibniz, who imagined this to be the “best” universe not just in terms of good outweighing evil, but also as the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena.

Chapter 31, The Floating Gardens, prompted me to get even more whimsical than usual. From a biblical standpoint, and the Old Testament in particular, the most significant “uni-verse” is the first verse.  (Might we consider this a Cosmological “Cohen” as opposed to a “Koan”?)  It reads:  בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

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בְּרֵאשִׁית – in the beginning.   The beginning of what?  Time would seem to be the essence.

בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים – God created.  The apparent conflict between “God” in the plural, and “created” in the singular.

אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ – The heavens and the earth.  Note the singularity of the earth and the multiplicity of the heavens, not to mention “the two aces”.

So by now you may be wondering, who is Katrina?  In chapter 50, p. 355, Professor Aguirre takes note of the host of dichotomies he has assailed us with:  Us and Them.  Self and Other.  East and West.  Katrina is a young woman in the service industry I encounter in her role as a barista at Starbucks in the morning and as a waitress at Martell’s Tiki Bar in the evening, a dichotomy in its own right.  She took an interest in what I was reading one morning – it was Cosmological Koans – which led to a conversation about East/West and the Yoga which got shoved down to the bottom of my bucket list.

Starbucks of course asks for your first name if you order anything but regular coffee.  Originally I gave my name as Len, but for some reason the baristas kept hearing “Glen”.  I got tired of correcting them, and so Glen I became for the purposes of my morning routine.  When Katrina waited on Miriam and me and at Martell’s, my “real” name came to the surface.  “If you’re Len, be Len” she said.  Sounds like a cosmological koan to me.

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Sasha Sagan on Rituals

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What are your daily rituals?  One of mine is a morning cup of coffee at Starbucks accompanied by a book that always reads better with highlighter in hand and the aroma of dark roast (acknowledging the strange look a book in print engenders these days from the Kindle/Nook crowd).  It is rituals that Sasha Sagan explores in detail in her new work, For Small Creatures Such as We, and if her surname is familiar to you it’s no doubt because you’ve heard of her late father, the astronomer Carl Sagan.  Aside from his books and documentaries, many of us came to appreciate Carl Sagan from his appearances in the media, such as the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Sasha writes: “I’ve more than once been in a situation where someone recognizes my surname, asks me if I’m related to my dad, and describes their admiration for him in the present tense.”  In a New York magazine article, Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan, she previously revealed the very personal nature of what it was like to be the daughter of a cultural icon.

The title of Sasha’s book came from a line that appeared in Carl’s novel, Contact: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”  In her introduction she writes that although the line is attributed to her dad, it was her mom that actually came up with those words, which served as a perfect crystallization of their family philosophy.

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One might venture that collaborative writing was a ritual in the Sagan family household. Contact was originally conceived by Sasha’s parents as a movie, but in the intervening years that it took to get to the screen they tried the story out as a novel.  The movie, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey finally appeared in 1997, the year after Carl died of complications due to bone marrow cancer.

In 1980, Carl co-founded the Planetary Society, which has played a significant role in space exploration.  Sasha was seven years old at the time, and she indulges in some nostalgia on a recent visit back to Society headquarters, exhibiting the rapture that is so evident in her book.

Much of Sasha’s connection to ritual stems from her Jewish background.  She notes: “I myself am only a few generations removed from some very religious people.  My mother’s grandparents were Orthodox Jews … I see myself as a Jew even as I sit here writing a book about my lack of faith.  It’s complicated.”  Sasha hints at some of these complications in a charming recent interview at the Strand bookstore.  Go to the 28:00 minute mark of the video, which brings Chapter 8, “Independence Days” to life.

Ranging through daily to weekly to monthly to yearly rituals and exploring cycles between seasons through the prism of various religions and cultures, Sasha treats a variety of ritualistic subjects in a breezy yet respectful way.  She is disarmingly honest about the way doubt creeps in among people of faith as well as science.  I draw no inferences in relating that four of her five upcoming appearances promoting the book are in Jewish Centers. 😉

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The Body: A Guide for Occupants

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If you are, or you know of anyone who is in the healthcare field; if you have a body, or you know of anyone who has a body – then Bill Bryson’s latest book is must reading!  It requires someone with Bryson’s skill as an historian, naturalist, and inveterate observer to be able to serve as a tour guide of the human body in such an informative and entertaining way.

In the first chapter, How To Build A Human, he notes that according to Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, fifty-nine elements are needed to construct a human being.  61% of  is oxygen; 10% is hydrogen; carbon, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorous collectively bring us to 99.1%.  That leaves only 0.9% for the other fifty-three elements represented by familiar faces such as tin, copper, cobalt and chromium, and the relatively obscure elements of vanadium, manganese and molybdenum.  Cadmium, the twenty-third most common element, constitutes 0.1% of our bulk, but is seriously toxic.  It is in us, as far as we know, not because it benefits us, but because we absorb it through the plants we eat who absorb it through the soil.  Selenium on the other hand is a beneficial mineral found in soil, a small amount of which is essential for metabolism via two vital enzymes.  Getting the balance right between all these minerals and elements is a delicate business.  No matter what you pay to procure the pure version and right amount of these chemicals, or how carefully you assemble the materials, you won’t be able to create a human being.  The most astounding thing is that we are a collection of inert components, as Bryson notes – the same stuff you would find in a pile of dirt.  The only thing special about the elements that make you is that they make you.  That is a significant part of the miracle of life.

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Do you have any idea where the idea of using fingerprints as a unique identifying feature came from?  In the second chapter, which discusses skin and hair, Bryson shares that it was the 19th century Czech anatomist Jan Purkinje who is credited for establishing that fact although the Chinese had actually made that discovery more than a thousand years earlier.  Of what biological imperative is having whorls on the ends of our fingers?  As with so many questions in this book, the answer is nobody knows for sure, but Bryson offers several potential answers.  This curiosity, along with why 60% of men are substantially bald by the age of 50, are among the many mysteries of the body’s terrain that he explores.

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Consider this elegant quote that is the first paragraph of Chapter 3, Microbial You:  “Take a deep breath.  You probably suppose that you are filing your lungs with rich life-giving oxygen.  Actually, not really.  Eighty percent  of the air you breathe is nitrogen.  It is the most abundant element in the atmosphere and it is vital to our existence, but it doesn’t interact with other elements.  When you take a breath, the nitrogen in the air goes into your lungs and straight back out again like an absentminded shopper who has wandered  into the wrong store.  For nitrogen to be useful to us, it must be converted into more sociable forms, like ammonia, ands it is bacteria that do that job for us.  Without their help we would die.  Indeed, we could never have existed.  It is time to say thank you to your microbes.”

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To a microbe, we are but a giant transport ecosystem with the convenience of mobility thrown in.  Sneezing in fact is triggered by microbes as a straphanger in a bus might ring the bell to signal to the driver he’s ready to get off.  They are hitchhikers, much like viruses.  In the 1930s, a team of investigators at Oxford led by Ernst Chain, who had fled Nazi Germany, rediscovered a published paper describing the serendipitous discovery  penicillin which had been lying dormant.  Though gifted in many fields, Chain – who bore an uncanny resemblance to Einstein – was a difficult man to get along with (a theme that runs through scientific discovery).  Along with Howard Florey, they shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 along with the author of the original paper who would become known as the father of penicillin, Alexander Fleming.  During his Nobel acceptance speech, Fleming presciently warned that microbes could easily develop resistance to antibiotics if indiscriminately used.  As Bryson remarks, antibiotics are about as nuanced as a hand grenade.  They wipe out good microbes as well as bad.  Increasing evidence shows that some o the good ones may never recover, to our permanent cost.

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As riveting as he can be on almost any subject pertaining to the body, Bryson is at his best when discussing the brain.  “For an object of pure wonder, the human brain is extraordinarily unprepossessing.  It is, for one thing, 75 to 80 percent water, with the rest split mostly between fat and protein.  Pretty amazing that three such mundane substances can come together in a way that allows us thought and memory and vision and aesthetic appreciation and all the rest.”  After a brief overview of the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem, Bryson notes: “Scattered through the brain rather like nuts in a fruitcake are many smaller structures … It’s easy to go a lifetime without hearing a word about any of these components unless they go wrong.”

Regarding the visual system, Bryson observes that the eyes send a hundred billion signals to the brain every second, but that’s only part of the story.  “When you see something, only about 10% of the information comes from the optic nerve.  Other parts of your brain have to deconstruct the signals – recognize faces, interpret movements, identify danger. In other words, the biggest part of seeing isn’t receiving visual images.  It’s making sense of them.”  It takes about one-fifth of a second for visual information to travel from the optic nerves to the parts of the brain that will process and interpret the information.  To deal with this time lag, the brain makes predictions about what we see.  It is mind-boggling to realize that what we see is not necessarily what is physically present, but what our brain informs us about – thereby creating a richness that originates inside our head, and which springs to life in the pages of Bryson’s masterpiece.

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Pacific Catamaran – San Diegan Style VHG

Nice environment at Catamaran Resort.

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Fall League Update #2

I finished update #1 a week ago by mentioning that Phillies prospect Zach Warren, a relief pitcher, mysteriously hadn’t appeared in a game.  He’s now appeared in three, having been roughed up in the first one but stellar in the second and third.  Here’s a shot of Zach in action, courtesy of my photo buddy, Robin Neubart.

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The Phils’ other relief prospect, JoJo Romero, has been very impressive, with an ERA of 1.08 and a WHIP of 0.96 to match.  Our two starters continue to shine.  Spencer Howard is the more heralded prospect, and was untouchable his first two outings, but touched up a bit in the last two.  The pleasant surprise is Connor Seabold, who in 4 games and 17 innings has posted a stunning 0.59 WHIP to complement a 1.06 ERA.  Here’s a shot of Seabold jamming a very good hitter inside to pop him up.

Mickey Moniak has finally climbed above the Mendoza Line, now batting .208 and nudging his OBP up to .240 based on 5 for 12 with a walk over his last three games.  Although he still has a long way to go, he is now making solid contact and also picked up his first stolen base.

Alec Bohm bears a bit more discussion.  His hot stats to start the AFL have cooled off a bit, and although his BA is still quite good at .327, his OPS at .788 looks quotidian.  He displayed a quick bat jumping on an inside high fastball to crush a no-doubt-about-it first home run last week.  Bohm can be overly aggressive at the plate at times, but his strength lies in being able to comfortably spray the ball to all fields.  He’s not intent on uppercutting to pad big home run totals, which is a welcome sign.

The bigger concern frankly is Bohm’s defense.  Because of his 6’5″ frame, people point to Kris Bryant and note that his success at 3B doesn’t mean Bohm is too tall for the position. The issue with Bohm however is that he’s not fluid in the field.  His range is limited, he doesn’t show quick reflexes in guarding the line, and his throws to first base can be erratic at times.  The Phils have him spending some time at first base, as he did in the minors this year, but he hasn’t looked great there either.  He has to work on his scoops, as well as  stretching more to put his glove on the ball earlier when there are close plays at 1B.

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Having said that, Bohm represented the Phillies well in the Fall Stars game playing 1B last night, scooping a low throw in the dirt to first for an out at a tight juncture.  So there’s hope for his continued development in the field.  He also looked good at the plate, drawing a walk and lining a pitch to the opposite field for a base hit, scoring both times.  It was nice seeing Bohm batting cleanup on a team of prospect stars.  The Scorpions however continue to struggle at 8-11, and we’ll see if they can pick up the pace in the second half of this six week season.

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The Secret of Kol Nidre

There was this Jew who was very … shall we say, they used to call his type a “Yekke“.   Very particular about his preferences in life.  He had a flight scheduled well in advance of his travel date with Swiss Air, and he phoned six months ahead to confirm that he has seat 38C, because he must sit in an aisle seat.  (By the way, Rabbi Jacobson, not to ruin the punch line, but when you get a bit older you’ll understand why certain men are particular about aisle seats.  It is thoughtful on their part, not wanting to disturb or having to climb over fellow passengers. Approximately one-third of these aisle dwellers have poor bladders and have to go frequently; another third have had DVTs and were instructed by their physicians to get up and walk the aisle as to safeguard against blood clots; and the final third have both limited bladder capacity and a history of DVTs.  Don’t ask me how I know this.)  The airline guarantees this man that he has seat 38C.

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A month later he phones again, and again they reassure him he has seat 38C.  Each month he calls, and they re-confirm that he has his aisle seat, 38C.  A week before, then a day before, he calls yet again, and his seat remains confirmed.  He arrives at the airport six hours ahead of his scheduled flight, and there is no seat assignment yet posted on the board.  When he gets his boarding pass, to his horror he sees that he’s been assigned seat 38B.  He’s sitting in a window seat, and he is outraged, to put it mildly.  His wife calls him as soon as he lands, and asks how the flight was.  “You call that a flight?” he says.  “Six months in advance I call them that I want an aisle seat.  Five months, four months, three months, two months, one month, each time they reassure me they have an aisle seat.  And it turns out they lied!  I’m going to sue them!  I will close down this airline!”  His wife says, my dear husband – if it’s so important for you to have an aisle seat, why didn’t you just ask the person sitting in the aisle seat to switch seats with you?  He says: “Ask?  What do you mean ask?  There was nobody sitting there!!!”

The formal title of today’s talk, as Rabbi Jacobson announces, is “How to Discover Your Spark: The Process of Change.”  I actually prefer the subtitle given on the YouTube video, which is: “The Secret of Kol Nidrei: How to Actualize Your Life’s Potential“.  Rabbi Jacobson shares that on Yom Kippur there was a very interesting prayer that the כֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, the High Priest, would make only on this day, and only in the holiest place in the בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, or hallowed edifice that was the Temple in Jerusalem.  So you had this convergence of the holiest man in the holiest of spaces at the holiest of times.  What was this comparatively brief prayer that he said which we recite on Yom Kippur?  He beseeches G-d for adequate rain so that the land can provide enough produce for sustenance.  He requests that the nation should have enough livelihood to support itself.  He asks that their enemies should not be able to destroy the people.  He asks that the people should not lose their sovereignty and independence; to be able to live in their homeland.  And then he asks for one more thing.  That this should be a year “Sheloh Tapil Ishah Pri Bitnah” – that no woman should have a miscarriage.

By all means, this is a wonderful thing that the Kohen Gadol is asking for.  (In the old days when pregnancies were fragile, Kabbalistic tradition has it that women sometimes wore amulets with a similar prayer.)  But why single out the idea of miscarriage?  Why not make a request on behalf of women who are infertile to be able to get pregnant?  Or that all children are born healthy.  Or that no one dies prematurely that year.  Any of these might be considered a vital blessing in their own right.

There’s something else that has always weighed heavily on Rabbi Jacobson’s mind.  Many Jews will find their way to a synagogue this coming Tuesday evening to participate in the Kol Nidre prayer, the opening of the Yom Kippur service in every Jewish community the world over.  The melody is heart-stirring, and triggers deep emotions among Jews.

The words are in Aramaic.  But this year, Rabbi Jacobson implores, take a close look at the English translation.  You’ll see that it’s a legal declaration about absolving vows.

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Essentially on Yom Kippur we publicly declare that any promises or pledges we make should not be considered binding.  Really?  Do those words really warrant such a stirring and intense melody?  Some people believe that the depth of emotion associated with this part of the Yom Kippur service stems from times when Jews had to take vows to literally save their lives.  Such was the case in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews called Conversos or a less endearing term, Maranos were forced to convert to Christianity.  They would get together once yearly in secrecy on Yom Kippur to annul these vows.  But the truth is that the recitation of Kol Nidre has its origin centuries before the Spanish Inquisition, which took place in the 1400s.

Consider another perspective.  Rabbi Jacobson notes that after each blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana the same prayer is recited: היום הרת עולם, which means today is the birthday of the world, because Rosh Hashana celebrates the anniversary of creation.

It’s a curious phrase however, because the term הרת עולם stems from the book of Yirmiyahu, the prophet Jeremiah, Chapter 20, verse 17.  And its origin has a very negative connotation.  הרת literally means pregnant, and עולם means forever.  He was wishing that his mother would have been pregnant with him forever, meaning that he wishes he had never been born. Yet the Rabbis turn this around and use it in a way so that הרת means birth and עולם means world – today is the birthday of the world.  In one sense this is understandable, Rabbi Jacobson says.  It’s hard to be born, to cut the umbilical chord so to speak.  This is particularly true when the child is a boy.  Mothers find it very hard to let go, prompting Rabbi Jacobson to share a couple of anecdotes.

A mother sent her son to pre-school the first day and says to him “My angel, my sweetheart, my neshamela, my zeeskeit, my piece of heaven — you’re going to go on the bus today but mommy is going to be right here waiting for you when you come home to hug you and kiss you mwa-mwa-mwa.”  He comes home the first day, and after she smothers him with kisses she asks “So my little angel, what did you learn in school today my love?”  And he replies: “For starters, I learned that I have a name.  It’s Dovid.”

Last week it was Rosh Hashana and a mother walks into her son’s bedroom.  She says “Samuel, Shmuel!  It’s nine o’clock in the morning!  You’ve got to go to shul!”  He says no, I’m not going.  “What?  Why don’t you want to go to shul?”  He says he’s not going because everyone in shul hates him.  The congregants, the board of directors, the chazan, the gabbai – everyone hates him.  Why should he go to shul?  She says: “Two reasons you have to go.  Number one you’re 49 years-old, and number two, you’re the Rabbi.”

So what do we really mean regarding this tension about being pregnant versus being born?  Rabbi Jacobson explains this refers to the individual.  Everyone is pregnant with potential.  With dreams.  With aspirations.  We’re full of possibilities, especially when we’re young, and begin to explore life.  Will we have the courage that it takes to give birth to our dreams?  He notes that animals sometimes are easier to observe and take lessons from than our fellow human beings who aren’t always as intelligent as animals.  Animals are primed to do three basic things: to live, to propagate, and to help their environment.  He illustrates this point with a parable about an imagined conversation between a mother camel and her baby camel, widely used in various cultures.

This is the question of הרת עולם.  If you’re capable of so much, why are you allowing your dreams and your potential to remain locked in a cage?  Rabbi Jacobson relates an anecdote about one of the most prominent Rabbis of the preceding generation, the Netziv, an acronym for Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin in Belarus.  Upon completion of one of his iconic works, the Yeshiva made a celebration for him, and he got up and said I want to tell you something about myself.  When I was a child, I was a horrible student.  I wasted my time all day.  Came time for my bar mitzvah, and I couldn’t fall asleep one night.  I overheard a conversation between my father and my mother in the kitchen.  My father said you know, with his mind, I thought he might become a really great Torah giant.  But it doesn’t look like it’s working out.  So I made an appointment with a carpenter for tomorrow, and at least that way he’ll be able to get an apprenticeship and make a decent living to support himself.  He’s good with his hands – he’ll be able to build beautiful mahogany book cases.

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The young boy came out of his bed, went to the kitchen, and pleaded with his parents to give him another chance at succeeding at learning Torah.  His father was reluctant, but seeing the boy crying said okay, we’ll send you to Yeshiva tomorrow and see what happens.  And the rest, the Netziv told his students, is history.  Here I am standing before you today, and do you know why I challenged my father when he wanted to make me a carpenter’s apprentice?  I was thinking about the end of my days.  When you go up to heaven after you die, G-d interviews you.  And He would say “Naftali Zvi – Hershele (as they called him) – welcome.  So tell me, what did you accomplish in the world?  And I would say I was a great carpenter, and he would say: show me some samples.  And I would answer:  Look at the shtenders I crafted; look at the gorgeous mahogany bookcases; look at the chairs, the walls and all the structures I created.  G-d would say: very impressive; I might have even become a customer myself.  But I have a question for you.  Where is your Imrei Shefer on the Hagadah?   Your Ha’amek Davar on Chumash?  And He started to list the all books of scholarship that the Netziv ultimately wrote.  My biggest feat is that I wouldn’t have had an answer.  All those seforim would have remained pregnant but stillborn if I were a carpenter.  Not following my destiny would have been a miscarriage of justice – an injustice I did to myself.

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Let me tell you about a different scenario, Rabbi Jacobson continued.  The other day the head of a Yeshiva was talking to his students and was not very impressed with their diligence.  He related the story of the Netziv and said, now let me tell you what’s going to happen when you guys die.  You’re going to meet G-d and he’ll ask what you did with your life and you’ll say that you stayed in Kollel the entire time.  And G-d will say:  That’s wonderful, but I have a question.  Where is the shtender?  Where are the chairs? Where are the beautiful mahogany bookcases you were supposed to create?

You have to know who you are, and what you are capable of.  You have to know what dreams to follow, and allow those dreams to be born.  So on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol went into the holiest of places, he prayed that the people would achieve their goals and maximize their potential.  To follow your heart and allow your unique gifts to illuminate the world.

So what is it that prevents people from reaching for the stars?  Is it fear?  Insecurity?  Scars or wounds from previous attempts?  Perhaps it is the need for conformity that makes people complacent.  Possibly a sense of wanting to please others, or a sense of inaction or paralysis that feels safer.  And the famous quote by Thoreau that Rabbi Jacobson cited:

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The secret of Kol Nidre resides is in the nature of what we are disavowing.  There are two basic types of promises that people make. There are promises that I make to you, such as what I’m going to do for you, and there are promises that I make to myself, such as a pledge to lose a certain amount of weight.  There are pledges that we make to ourselves that have much deeper implications, and show that we are resigned to what we feel our fate is.  “My life is destined to be problematic.  My mother and I will never get along.  My spouse and I will never share the same interests.  My father and I haven’t spoken for the last year and we probably won’t speak again for another year.  And me and my brother?

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We put ourselves into confined boxes, and convince ourselves that “I guess that’s the way it’s supposed to be”.  The most important pledges you have to disavow yourself of on Yom Kippur are these vows that you have been making, and will be making to yourself during the coming year, about what you are capable of, and what you are not capable of.  About what type of life you’re going to live – physically, financially, socially, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.

There was an American family by the name of Smith that was very proud of their lineage because they could trace their ancestry back to people who arrived on these shores on the Mayflower.  So proud were they of the chain that went all the way back to the pilgrims integral in establishing the United States of America that they hired a researcher to chronicle their family history

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Of course whenever you research a project like this you inevitably come up with a skeleton or two in the closet, and to the family’s dismay the researcher came across the story of their great, great uncle Clarence Smith, who was put to death by electric chair for criminal activity.  The Smith Family was so concerned about the stain on the family that they told the researcher then were going to scrap the project.  “Don’t worry”, said the researcher.  “I’ve handled situations like this before.  I’ll do it in a way that the story will be true, but won’t embarrass your family.”  The day of publication they run to the bookstore, open the book to its index, and find that Clarence Smith is on page 78.  They turn to the page and this is what it says:  “Great, great uncle Clarence Smith occupied an important chair in a governmental institution.  He remained connected to his position until his last breath.  His death came as a sudden shock.”

I can’t experience Kol Nidre if I’m tied down by self-imposed shackles.  Kol Nidre is a declaration not that I don’t have any skeletons in the closet, or have no traumas, fears, or insecurities.  We each battle these demons.  In fact, Rabbi Jacobson confessed, he himself has significant insecurities.  That’s why he’s a public speaker.  The only people he’s aware of who are perfect are people that he hasn’t met yet.

Kol Nidre is our way of saying that I am more powerful than my pain; I am deeper than my frailties; I am larger than my insecurities.  But as the Tanya says, our soul is as invincible as G-d because it stems from G-d.  Our soul has the sacredness, the joy, the optimism, and the power of its Creator.  As the verse in Psalms says, oz vechedvah bimkomo – there is confidence and joy in G-d’s space.  All the negative messages we send ourselves during the year are superficial, self-imposed doubts.  But Yom Kippur gives you the power to dig deeper, and Kol Nidre the is the moment when you absolve yourself of these shackles that you invariably bind yourself with.

Ah … so now listen to the melody that goes along with plumbing the depths of these self-imposed shackles and breaking the ties that bind — and the crescendos of “ay-yah-yah-yay, yay, yay, yay” seem very well-suited to the emotions involved.  It is the declaration of freeing one’s soul; of liberating and emancipating the spirit.

This also speaks to a fundamental question, which is how Adam and Eve were created on Rosh Hashanah in G-d’s image, when we say that G-d does not have an image.  Yet when we say human beings were created in G-d’s image, and G-d has no image, that is precisely the point.  We choose our own image, but the core of our being has no image.  There is a default image humans create, and that is the self-view of victimhood.  But in reality what we see when we look in the mirror is entirely of our own making.   Which reminds Rabbi Jacobson of another story.

A boy is about to become bar-mitzvah and in preparing for his speech he comes to his mother and says that he wants to learn more about his ancestry.  So she starts waxing eloquently about her mother and grandmother, and the boy says no mommy – I mean all the way back!  Where do we come from?  She says:  “In the very beginning?  In the very beginning there was Adam and Eve, and they had children though I’m not sure why, and those children had their own children, and the rest is history – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and so on”.  So the boy then goes to his father, who was very well-educated, with degrees from Columbia and Yale Universities, and poses the same question to him that he presented to his mother.  His father tells him about the family lineage and the boy says no, Daddy – I mean the very beginning.  The father says: “The very beginning?  Well it all began with a primordial soup and a big bang  some 15.3 billion years ago.  And after many years of evolution the homo sapien emerged.

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But I’m confused Daddy.  What were we before we were humans?  “Before that?  We were apes”.  And what about before apes?  “We were monkeys.”  And before that?  “We were other primates.”  But how did it all begin? “From a big explosion involving gas and bacteria.”  Now the boy is really confused.  He goes back to his mother and says Mommy, I’m not sure how I can give my Bar Mitzvah speech.  You tell me we come from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Adam, Eve and G-d.  Daddy tells me we come from apes, monkeys, and bacteria.  So which is it?  She says “Son, there’s no contradiction here.  Your father was talking about his side of the family … and I’m talking about my side of the family.”

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Kol Nidre.  It’s about how we choose to see ourselves when we look in the mirror.  Here’s an inspiring way to think about the potential to create your self-image.  The funeral for Shimon Peres, the 9th President of Israel, took place three days before Rosh Hashana three years ago.  Seventy world leaders came to his funeral in Jerusalem to bid him farewell, including the President of the United States and statesmen from Britain, Luxembourg, Spain and many other countries.

Very impressive for a Polish Jew who was born Szymon Perski, and whose grandfather was burned to death by the Nazis with a talis over his head.  What is particularly interesting about Shimon Peres is that he never won an election in a race for public office.  He kept on running and he kept on losing.  By default, after Rabin was assassinated, he became acting Prime Minister but seven months later lost in the general election to Netanyahu.  The Israeli newspapers referred to him as “the eternal loser”.  You would think at some point he would get the message.  You know, it’s time to retire to a farm, or to some nice condominium in Tel Aviv, and luxuriate on laffa.  But at age 93 he still had plans for the future.  Shortly before his death, his son Chemi asked his father what he would like to be written on his tombstone.  And Peres responded: “You should write ‘he died prematurely‘.”  What a profound lesson!  Irrespective of political ideologies, Rabbi Jacobson noted that Shimon Peres went out feted in a way that accorded him more respect than any other previous Israeli leader, elected or otherwise.  Although he could have easily and justifiably conceived of himself as a loser, instead he had the drive to give birth to his dreams; not to be pregnant with thought and remain paralyzed by inaction.  And he ultimately became the President of Israel.

The High Priest asked on Yom Kippur that this be a year in which no person miscarries.  Because every individual is filled with so much potential.  That is why we become emotional during Kol Nidre, because it is such a tragedy when a person dies prematurely.  And it is a particularly great tragedy when we die prematurely while we’re still alive.

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Fall League Update

Today was a scheduled off-day, and a good time to update what’s happening.  The Phillies prospects are part of the Scottsdale Scorpions, and ironically right now they’re mirroring the parent club who finished the major league season with a .500 record.  The Saguaros are the surprise team of the Fall League, sitting atop the standings at 9-3.

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A big topic of dugout chatter is the robo-umpire strikes and balls calling being field-tested in the Fall League.  As anticipated, it has generated some controversy and while it neutralizing the art of catchers framing pitches on the corners, it penalizes pitchers on late-breaking pitches that cross the plate as strikes but are called balls.  It’s also odd to have to wait for the umpire to make the call due to the lag time between the ball popping in the catcher’s mitt and the ump getting word on the call through his earpiece.  What used to be rare “late calls” are now the norm.  Of course there are still situations the robo umpire can’t yet call, such check swings by the batter – particularly those that are appealed by the pitcher or catcher for which the human ump behind the plate checks with the human ump at first or third base.

I like the look and feel of the StatPack that conveniently holds the roster programs an doubles as a scorecard.  Nice touch by the new commissioner’s office.

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The Phillies prospects have generally acquitted themselves well thus far.  At the top of the heap is Alec Bohm (according to the program pronounced “Bomb” rather than “Bome”).  Although he’s struggled in the field at 3B at times, he looks good at 1B.  The ball makes a nice sound off his bat, and he’s got a nice .387/.863 slash line.

Enjoy some stellar stills of Bohm snapped by ace amateur photographer and fellow Phillies fan, Robin Neubart.

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As opposed to Alec’s 31 at-bats thus far, two of the other Phillies’ prospects Josh Stephen and Nick Maton have had only 11 and 12 ABs respectively.  Stephen’s slash line is a gawdy .455/1.175, and Maton is .333/1.051.  In stark contrast is Mickey Moniak, with the meek slash line of .161/.446.  The #1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Mick is going to have to pick up the pace sooner rather than later to change the perception that he’s going to be the next Cody Asche.  Here are some nice candid shots of Moniak snapped by Robin Neubart.

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BTW, in the next-to-last shot above, thanks to Robin’s camera work, you can see the problem with Mickey’s swing.  His hips fly way open as his bat comes back, which is one reason why he’s had such trouble driving the ball, with most of his 31 ABs winding up in ground-outs.

Phillies top pitching prospect Spencer Howard has shined in his two starts thus far as expected, with a 0.00 ERA an 1.00 WHIP over six innings.  But a pleasant surprise has been Connor Seabold, with an 0.75 ERA and 0.58 WHIP in 12 innings over the course of his three starts.  Seabold has great mechanics, repeatability, command, and mound presence.

The third pitcher is reliever JoJo Romero with a 2.08/1.38 ERA/WHIP.  The fourth pitcher and the last Phils’ prospect to be added to the Scorpion’s roster, Zach Warren is an enigma.  Although the most recent AFL update still shows him on the team, as does the paper roster handed out at the game, he hasn’t yet appeared on the mound.

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Spill the Wine Take that Pearl

It was the summer of 1970 and I was lying a field of grass, basking in warm sunshine as a junior counselor at Camp Morasha in Lake Como, Pennsylvania.  An unusual and intriguing song came on the radio, having just been released a couple of months earlier.  It’s fair to say that Spill the Wine was groundbreaking in its time in many respects.  The flute, keyboard, and percussion elements bear some resemblance to what Ian Anderson was doing with Jethro Tull, which had formed two years earlier.  But there are distinct Latin elements as well, Santana-like in nature, including a woman believed to be Burdon’s girlfriend interspersing undertones in Spanish.  In case you’re not familiar with the song here it is on the original 45 RPM single from Eric Burdon and War.

This was War’s first hit, and Burdon’s biggest chart topper after leaving The Animals.  Where did the idea for the song come from?  That’s the subject of considerable folklore, and the writing credits go to all the members of War, though the song’s producer was Jerry Goldstein.  Goldstein, who co-wrote the song “I Want Candy” as a member of the Strangeloves, hailed from Brooklyn, New York before relocating to the Pacific Palisades, and may have had some influence behind the scenes – or at least that’s how I choose to view it on this evening with Rosh Hashana in the balance.  Inspiring these thoughts is a book I had put aside to read by Howard Schwartz titled “A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.”

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In his preface, Schwartz notes that Reb Nachman is a unique figure in Chasidic tradition and in Jewish literature.  He was greatly influenced by Lurianic Kabbalah, and in turn was an influence on great Yiddish writers such as Mendele Mocher-Seforim, Sholom Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.  Reb Nachman was the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, and was only 38 years old when he died in 1810.   At times feeling like an outcast in his own community, he was not nearly as well known in his lifetime as he is celebrated now through Breslover Chasidus.  Before he passed away on October 16, 1810, he asked his followers to visit his grave on Rosh Hashana:  “Bear witness to my words: When my days are over and I leave this world I will intercede for anyone who comes to my grave, says these ten psalms, and gives a penny to charity.  No matter how great his sins, I will do everything in my power, spanning the length and depth of creation, to save him and cleanse him.”

The Reb Nachman story that opens Part 1 of Schwartz’s book is The Lost Princess.  The gist of the story is that there was once a king with six sons and one daughter.  One day he became angry with her and said, “Go to the Devil!”.  In the morning the King realized she was missing and, filled with remorse, sent his minister traveling throughout the realm to find her.  He searched for many years and one day, while traveling through a desert, arrived at the splendid palace of another king.  As he stood off to the side, he watched the king command his servants to bring in the queen.  Fond of music, the king conducted a band of musicians who played and sang as the queen entered.  When they led her to the throne the minister saw that she was the lost princess.  Recognizing him immediately, she summoned him and he asked what he could do to have her return home.   She replied: “It is not possible to free me until you dwell in one place for a year, and throughout the year yearn to set me free.  And on the last day of that year you must fast, and not sleep for a full day and night.”

… On the last day of the long year he saw for the first time a spring whose waters were reddish, and whose smell was that of wine.  The minister pointed out the spring to his servant, then went and tasted of its waters, only to fall asleep and miss his chance to bring back the lost princess.

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When the minister awoke he asked his servant: “Where am I?”  The servant told him all that happened, about the troops that had passed by there and the carriage that had stopped, and how the princess had tried so hard to wake him.  Then the minister saw a scarf and asked: “Where did this come from?”  And the servant told him that the lost princess had written on it with her tears.  So the minister took it and lifted it up toward the sun, and read the message that was written there.  It said that she was no longer to be found in the palace of the Evil One, but from then on she would make her home in a palace of pearls on a golden mountain, and it was there that he would find her.

I don’t know for a fact that Jerry Goldstein was exposed to Reb Nachman’s parable of The Lost Princess, or the extent to which he may have crossed paths with Breslover Chasidim in Brooklyn.  But there are simply too many parallels here between the language and feel of the song Spill the Wine and the parable The Lost Princess for me to believe that this was a total coincidence.  And if I am correct, while the impetus for the song may have been wine inadvertently spilled on a keyboard as folklore has it, the exotic mystical tale that Burdon tells was inspired by Goldstein channeling his inner Reb Nachman.

I doubt that any of us coming of age in the 1960s appreciated the depth of Eric Burdon’s influence.  But in 2016, Eric made an appearance on Studio 10, Australia’s popular morning TV show, in which he share a remarkable insight at the 6 minute mark of this video.  “The biggest accolade that I ever got was from the number one German promoter in Germany, Fritz Rau who was doing jazz under the Nazis and became the biggest promoter in Europe, who said to me the one thing that we should all feel grateful to you English/British rockers for is that you put a stop to the prolification of Nazism after World War II.  Instead of the young kids picking up guns an putting on their SS uniforms, they started putting on velvet jackets and picking up guitars and singing.”

Parenthetically, one of the hosts notes that Burdon’s signature hit that launched his original group the Animals to stardom, was an old American folk song House of the Rising Sun originally arranged by Dave Van Ronk and recorded by Bob Dylan.  Bruce Springsteen once said the Animals were the most important band to shape his own musical vision.  At a concert in Hope Estate, located in the heart of Hunter Valley wine country in Australia in 2014, Bruce and the Band did their own version of Spill the Wine.

There are a number of incredible recordings of Spill the Wine available online.  Here is an upbeat version that Eric did with the Brain Auger Band in 1991 with a marvelous two minute drum and keyboard prelude, where you can see his transition as a middle age rocker.

Fast forward to the elderly yet still soulful and vibrant rocker at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in 2013.

It has been many years since Burdon’s record producer, Jerry Goldstein left his childhood home in Brooklyn for the lush surroundings of the Pacific Palisades.  The next time I’m near L.A. I just may look him up to see if there is credence to my theory.

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