Don’t Panic, Pt. 5: Philosophy Corner

To those who are ill: I wish you a speedy recovery!
I wish everyone good health, safety, strength, and patience!
And we all owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who continues to work during this time. They are on the front lines and deserve much more than we’re giving them. 


This week I’ve been thinking about the Tower card in the Tarot deck.


It’s pretty scary! If it comes up in a reading, it means sudden, shocking change. There’s a lightning bolt from the sky. Fire! The symbols of the kingdom are knocked over. People are falling. Everything you know is going to be shaken to its foundations.

But most interpretations offer a glimmer of hope.

  • What if the Tower was a prison? Now you are free.
  • What if the Tower was built on shaky foundations? Now you can rebuild.
  • What if the Tower was a monument to illusion? Now you can move forward with knowledge.

COVID-19 is definitely a sudden, shocking event, and it has shaken the world. It’s scary, and it’s a catastrophe for physical and mental health, for the world economy, for social connections, for everything we knew before.

Now what? Where is the glimmer of hope?

Day after day after day after day after day after day …

If you’re sheltering at home, they do kind-of blend together, don’t they? Someone wished me a nice weekend, and I channeled Downtown Abbey‘s Lady Violet, “What is a ‘week-end’?”

But I’m more reminded of the the movie Groundhog Day, a Bill Murray classic about a guy who relives the same day until he gets it right (and gets the girl!).

If you’re feeling bad about staring at screens all day, shouting at the news, and not doing any of the things you planned to do when you “finally have the time,” don’t. We’re still at the beginning of Groundhog Day. Bill Murray’s character realizes that his actions have no consequences and instead of doing good, he gives in to all his worst impulses: stuffing his face with food and alcohol, being violent and dangerous, using his time loop to develop new and creative ways to be a social tsunami.

Wikipedia writes that Groundhog Day is a story about the philosophical idea of “cultivation.” I first heard about this concept in Chinese dramas about gods and immortals. The idea is that a person spends 10,000 years becoming a better person – a little bit every day. In a pithy phrase: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Bill Murray’s character didn’t learn French in a day. He didn’t learn to play piano in a day. And it certainly took him longer than a day to learn to be a better person.

Just one step

So we’ve had this shocking change in our world.

Take a breath. And then, every day

  • Take care of basic hygiene
  • Remind yourself of the date
  • Be grateful for your blessings
  • Do one small good thing

Everything feels like it’s falling to pieces right now, but like the Tower card, it depends on how you interpret it. Like in Groundhog Day, you can choose what to do in an impossible and insane situation (while gently forgiving yourself for your imperfect cultivation).

Passover is next week and we’ll tell the story as we do every year. After surviving plagues, the newly freed Israelites will receive some new life instructions and will do their best to become better people.

We will overcome this. We will be free of the before-times. But our strength is that we can choose how we will rebuild in the after-times.


Matza Brei

All gentile families eat leavened bread; all Jewish families have their own recipe for matza brei.
–Leo Tolstoy, opening line of Anna Karenina

That may not actually be a direct quote from Anna Karenina, but it is true that there are as many matza brei recipes as there are Jewish families with frying pans.  The basics are the same:  matza and eggs.  After that anything goes: savory or sweet, schmaltz or butter, salsa or cinnamon, onions or maple syrup.  Also, everyone says that their family’s is the best.

You too can join the Jewish people and make your own version of matza brei.  I’m not known as a great chef (so recipes will not be a regular feature here), but here’s my version.



1 Matza

2 Eggs

Some Butter

Salt and pepper to taste


Break two eggs into a bowl and whisk them with a fork.

To save on bowls, wet the matza under running water in the sink.  Pretty wet, but don’t let it fall apart in your hand.  Break it into pieces in the eggs.  You can add the salt and pepper at this stage, but if you forget you can always add it later.

Let it soak for a couple of minutes.  In the meanwhile, you can make a lazy salad (see below).

Heat the butter in a pan.  Yeah, that’s right.  BUTTER!

Elegantly dump the eggs in the pan

and cook them like scrambled eggs.  That means the matza brei shouldn’t get too dry.  It should still glisten a bit.

The second it looks done, get it off the heat and plate it.  Here you can see it served with my world famous lazy salad – cut up a cucumber and a tomato and sprinkle them with a little salt.  This one has a bonus ingredient of olives.  I also tried to make the whole thing “fancy” by adding chives.  While it wasn’t really a mistake, it was rather unnecessary.

Voila!  Not-so-terrible, perfectly edible matza brei!  B’tayavon and bon appetite!


Festival of Freedom

One of the names of Passover is the Festival of Freedom (Chag Herut).  This is no surprise since the main story of Passover is how the Jews left slavery in Egypt.  But if you take the meaning a bit deeper, it can be

Political freedom

Personal freedom

Spiritual freedom

Emotional freedom

Freedom to choose

Freedom from fear

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our mind.
– Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”

The list goes on and on.

The story of Passover ends with the crossing of the Red Sea, but that’s where the real story of freedom begins.  The Jews gather under Mt. Sinai and, after the golden cow incident, they agree to a covenant with God.  They go to the land God promised Abraham and send spies to report on the situation.  The spies lie and the former slaves get scared, start complaining, and start making plans to go back to Egypt – “it would have been better to die in Egypt!”  God gets annoyed – no surprise there – but Moses talks Him out of killing everyone as it would be really bad press to kill the people you promised the land to.  God agrees, but says that they have to wander for 40 years.


In the Bible the explanation ends there.  However, if we analyze it a bit, we can see that 40 years is about 2 generations, so the people who will inherit the land will be the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the slaves.  This generation will have lived in freedom their whole lives with a faith in God who provided them manna every day.  They will have never known what it feels like to have a master and even the stories of their grandparents will be far removed from their experience.  This is the generation that will be strong enough and confident enough to have their own country in their own land.

Passover and Politics

A lot of crazy stuff is happening in the world.  Just this morning I woke up to news of US Tomahawk missiles fired on Syria after Syria attacked its own people with chemical weapons.  Syria has been in a civil war for the past 6 years with hundreds of thousands of dead and probably millions of refugees.

T Jefferson

I wonder if the story of the Festival of Freedom could inspire the people of Syria.  They need to continue to struggle to be free of tyranny and fear.  But it won’t be an instant change.  Like the Israelites, they will need practice living in freedom, making choices, and learning how to be responsible for their own nation.  It’s going to be tough, but ultimately it will be worthwhile.

There were those who saw the parallels of the breakup of the Soviet Union with the story of the Jews in the desert for 40 years.  A people who had known only a tzar with total authority moved to a system with a Politburo with total authority to a dictator with total authority.  After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were people who wished for the return of Stalin – and they were the ones who remembered Stalin! – at least they would know what to expect and how to maneuver around the system.  This is a perfect example of slave mentality.  So far it’s only been 26 years.  Let’s check back in 2031.

Pharrell Williams’ music video “Freedom” reminds us that all human beings deserve to be free.  Happy Passover!


Downtown Jerusalem


I wasn’t going to bring this up, but my phone froze while I was trying to take pictures in town today. So, like with any computer, turn it off, turn it back on.  Then my phone decided to optimize 131 apps.  I certainly don’t use 131 apps, do I?  Urg.  So annoying!!

Optimizing 131 apps apparently takes a REALLY long time.  So I stood in the shade with my overheated phone in my hand.  Every time I checked, a two or three more apps optimized.  Should I just go home and come back later?  Should I overreact and throw my phone into a wall?  I got a fruity popsicle and calmed down.  I decided to walk around while I waited for my phone’s soul to come back from its journey in the Underworld.

Downtown today was filled with students raising money for their various summer camps.  It was a mobile bake sale.  Religious people were giving away Shabbat candles to women and helping men wrap tefillin.  I passed at least five street musician groups in the space of one city block. Every few steps there was a different vibe – oldies, Israeli, Spanish, ballads, and more.  Phone still optimizing.

I went into a bookstore and had a revelation.  I was browsing and found two books that caught my interest and realized that whatever the algorithm is that brings up ads and suggestions on my computer would have never suggested these books to me.  Going out into the world helps me to change the parameters of my algorithm and see things I might not usually see.  Staying in and expecting to have my preferences handed to me on a silver platter just encourages me to have selective vision.  There’s a whole world of things that I know nothing about simply because I’ve never seen them before and they’re all out there just waiting for me to open my eyes and see them.  Whoa!

Finally, my phone apps were optimized and so was I.

Join me downtown!

I don’t know what the municipality has in mind for downtown, but so far I like it!  This week the overhead decorations are celebrating different countries and cultures around the world.  I’m sure I didn’t find them all, but here’s today’s selection.

Streets of the World

I happened upon some amazing murals down one of the streets.

This is also a good opportunity to share the pictures I took during Passover.  The municipality brought artists to the center of town to create 3-D art.  Some really worked, others didn’t, but it was fun to go around and discover the artwork.  (I needed a map, Google maps with GPS, and two days to find them all.)

For those who want to see all the pictures in more detail, here’s a slideshow. 

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“Next Year in Jerusalem!”

next year in jlemFor Passover in 2001, I was in Israel volunteering at Kibbutz Maagan Michael and I had an invitation to a Passover Seder in Jerusalem.  I think for most people, they just say “Next Year in Jerusalem!” at the end of the Seder as part of tradition with no intention whatsoever of being in Jerusalem the next year.  For me, it had long been my secret wish to have Passover in Jerusalem.  It was less a Zionist imperative and more “I’ve been saying it for years and now I’m going to do it!”  And wouldn’t it be amazing to fulfill that dream?

So here it is April 2001 and I am actually going to be in Jerusalem for the Seder.  This is it!  Dream fulfilled!  I came to Jerusalem for the Shabbat before Passover – known as Shabbat HaGadol (the Great Shabbat).  On Saturday, I had lunch in the home of a religious family who lived in the Old City.  The family spoke very little English and my friend and I were there only there to meet the son (a friend of my friend, both of them were named Yair, which was a little confusing) who was going to walk with us around the Jewish quarter and take us to the Western Wall.  We hadn’t actually planned to have lunch, but our timing was a little off and they were just sitting down, so they invited us to join them.  So with my extremely limited knowledge of Hebrew, I listened to the conversation and the prayers and found that I could pick out a few words.  One of the phrases I remember hearing is Shabbat HaGadol.

There were at least eight of us at the lunch.  The food was excellent and filling.  The conversation flowed in Hebrew, and the two Yairs filled in some of the gaps for me.  And then it happened.  The idea of fulfilling my secret wish, actually being at the center of Judaism here in the Old City, and sitting at a Shabbat lunch surrounded by Hebrew simply overwhelmed me.  My eyes welled with tears.  And then one slipped out and rolled down my cheek.  I was embarrassed, but after the first one, there’s really no stopping them.  I wasn’t crying exactly.  It was really more like my emotional cup was overflowing and it came out of eyes in salty tears.

The family and my friends sitting around the table let it happen like it was the most normal thing in the world, as if everyone who comes to Shabbat lunch on Shabbat HaGadol leaks tears all over the table.  The embarrassment was my own, but it only lasted a short while, because no one seemed to mind.  They noticed, but saw that it was because I was washed over with emotion, not because I was sad.  I did explain afterwards through translation that it was because sitting there in that moment represented a secret wish fulfilled.  It was next year and I was in Jerusalem!

The story of my tears became sort of a legend in the family.  I spent other holidays with them – without all the tears.  But they always remembered that I was the one who cried at their table and by the next Passover, I had turned my life inside out and upside down and moved to Israel.

So That Happened

On Monday a bus blew up.

I heard a lot of sirens all of a sudden just before 6pm.  At first I thought it was a VIP and his entourage.  But then there were more.  And more.

Facebook.  A friend’s comment.  “Anyone know what happened on Derech Hevron?” And then the answers started flooding in.  It wasn’t Derech Hevron.  A bus.  Was it terror?  Wait.  The police don’t want to say that yet.  Definitely bus on fire.  Second bus also on fire.  Then the evidence pointed to terror.

*Sigh*  I remember those days.  I didn’t like those days.  I don’t want those days back.

Between 6pm and 7pm I had to make a decision.  My Tai Chi class is in the same neighborhood as the bus bombing.  Should I take a bus as usual?  Class wasn’t canceled (of course), so I decided to walk.  I walked in part because I could use the additional exercise.  The chance of another bus attack was pretty small, but it’s been so long since a bus attack that I just didn’t want to get on a bus.

It took 45 minutes and I was pretty pleased with myself.

On the way back, another choice.  As I was passing the bus stop, the bus came.  I could have gotten on.  There were plenty of people taking the bus right then.  But I chose to walk.

I was happy with the accomplishment of walking to and from class.  It was a good long walk and something that I had considered doing before.  But I’m bothered by the fact that the thing that pushed me to do it was a bus blowing up.

Two days later, I had a chance to ease my bothered feelings.  I took a train and a bus to where I needed to go.  I walked in crowded areas where I needed to run my errands and life was back to normal.

Since this is Israel, “normal” right now means high alert.  Over major holidays in Israel there is a much more visible presence of security personnel and starting today and for the next 48 hours the West Bank and Gaza Strip are closed off.

I am sure that upon hearing the words “West Bank closed off” there are those who would cry “oppressive occupation” and excuse all violence against civilians as “legitimate protest.”  I disagree.  Besides nothing being “legitimate” about blowing up a bus filled with civilians, as a citizen of Israel, I expect my government and our armed forces to protect civilians.  I expect to feel secure as I walk or take a bus in my streets.  And when I look at images like this, I’m glad that security personnel are doing everything in their power to keep us safe.

bus bomb

Screen capture from HaAretz

Originally, I had plans to write a nice Friday email about my first Passover in Israel, but this week provided many other potential topics – this bus bombing, a follow-up on Western Wall/Temple Mount issues, and Prince, another icon from my childhood, passed away.  Well, it will still be Passover next Friday and I may yet write about these other things too.

Wishing everyone a peaceful Passover!

How is it Passover already?

It happens every year.  I know Passover is coming.  I see the introduction of Passover foods at the supermarket and then, BAM, it’s already here.  Passover is in a week, but people have already started and finished their major cleaning and are stocking up on Passover foods.

“Cleaning for Passover” means a lot of things to a lot of different people.  If you keep kosher, then “cleaning for Passover” means that you have cleaned all traces of bread, leavening, and any of the other forbidden grains out of your home.  Often that entails moving large appliances and being shocked at how much dirt and grime is under there, so then “cleaning for Passover” turns into a major spring cleaning effort.

Then once the house is “clean for Passover” you can’t bring any bread products into your house until after Passover.  If you’re like me, the idea of not eating bread makes me crave baguettes, sandwiches, cake, and every other flour-based product on the market.  I’m sure people manage to not eat bread (Atkin’s Diet anyone?), but around Passover, I can’t think of anything I want to eat except bread.

No bread

Some years I clean for Passover and others I don’t.  Interestingly, I found that if I don’t clean for Passover, I tend to have more ants in and around the house.  I imagine that our ancestors noticed that they had fewer bugs if they did some spring cleaning and the cleaning frenzy was conveniently timed around Passover when they weren’t supposed to have any bread products around anyway.  Coincidence?

Some thinkers take the idea of leavening into the spiritual realm.  What is bread if not substance filled with air?  How does a person who is puffed up with himself or herself appear to others?  Passover cleaning can also be done within to rid yourself of arrogance.

Another spiritual avenue gets to the heart of who you are as a person.  At first Moses didn’t have courage.  After he killed the slave master, he ran away to the desert.  He could have had a fine life, but then a burning bush spoke to him (and was not consumed).  If a burning bush tells you to go to Pharaoh to demand that he free the people of Israel, are you going to do it?  If you have a speech impediment (Moses did), do you think to yourself, “yeah, I’ll just clearly tell Pharaoh what’s what.”  Luckily, Moses had a brother (Aaron) who was willing to stand up with him and demand freedom, but Moses himself (and Aaron) had to have the courage and faith to do what needed to be done.

Standing on the shores of the Red Sea, the people of Israel bitterly complained.  They had Pharaoh’s army chasing them and the sea in front of them.  They wailed that it would be better to be slaves than die out here.  Moses assured them that the path would open before them, but they had to see it with their own eyes.  So the sea parted and they went forward.  But was it enough?  No.  After all they saw and experienced, they still felt the need for a golden calf so that they could have physical thing to worship.  Forty years in the desert would be enough time to raise up a new generation who only knew freedom, who would be courageous, and who would have faith.


The Exodus is a Hero’s Journey for Moses as well as for the nation of Israelites.  We can be inspired and re-inspired by the story.  Each year we have the opportunity to find something new.  Are we going to find courage within ourselves?  Will we demand to see everything with our own eyes before we have faith in something?  Will we be courageous and free and then fill ourselves with our own arrogance about how fabulously enlightened we are?

In the meanwhile, I think I’ll move my refrigerator and clean underneath it.  I hope not to find anything new there, but perhaps I’ll find something that I lost in the past year.  Ah, well, that will be a spiritual story for another day.