On the Competition for Recognition Part VIA The Moral Compass: An Overview of the Political Left

Before my last few blogs on the section of the Torah dealing with the reunion of Jacob and Esau and a review of the Coen brothers’ new movie, The Ballad of Buster Scragg, I summarized the political debates in America in a chart depicting a four-way fight. The populists took over the Republican Party. We know because the president, as the leader of the party, routinely denigrates the core institutions of a democracy – an independent non-politicized judiciary, a free and responsible press, a representative legislature fairly chosen by the people, a non-politicized office of an attorney general, a military that is subject to civilian control but not to be used by those same civilians either to promote a domestic political agenda or to be used against a country’s own citizens. He uses harangues, mass rallies and the grossest of lies to promote “me” in the name of making the country supposedly “great” again. Populism of the right depends on the part of the nation that feels lost to the forces of history – namely and mainly white rural males. The insidious enemy consists of immigrants, both within the country and those wanting to come.

In contrast, left liberals retain control of the Democratic Party, though a more radical left, democratic socialists in America who would be characterized as the liberal left in Europe, have increased both their presence in Congress and their public support representing a rise of populism on the left as well as on the right. Throughout Europe, there are populists on the left within governments, but the populists mainly come from the right. In fact, the equivalent of the left liberal perspective in America, the social democrats, have been the greatest losers to populism on the right and left, but overwhelmingly on the right. The SPD in Germany is down to 14% support in the polls; the French socialists scored only 7.4% in last year’s parliamentary elections, the Dutch Labour Party won only 5.7% of the vote, the Czech Social Democrats have dropped to 7.3% in the polls.

After I describe the conflict within the Democratic Party in the USA in this blog and detail my interpretation with evidence from the political ground on the tensions within the Democratic Party, I will shift to Britain where the populist left have already taken control. Then I will move to the continent.

Why have populist parties, or factions within parties, arisen in America and Europe? The rise of social media? The effect of globalism and automation on workers? Fears of an economic turndown as economies begin to stall? Migration, that may be seen as a threat on the right but may be viewed as an opportunity as well as positive value for the left? I believe that none of these are key indicators. A fundamental culture clash is. The white rural male fear of “coloureds” and migrants may be central to the politics of the far right; the opposition to Israel as a Zionist state characterizes the populism on the left, much more clearly in Britain than in America. But I claim that the same forces exist in the U.S. Why Israel? This will be the suspense question hanging over this blog but only answered in a future blog.

To recall, the overall battle, with modifications and clarifications, can be represented in terms of basic and core political values (as well as personality traits not represented here) by the following chart:

 

  Left Populist Liberal Conservative Right Populist
Substance      * Identity wars Protections Markets Identity wars
  The rights of oppressed foreign nations Civil and group rights Human rights National rights
Process          * Challenge incumbents Defend incumbents Surrender

incumbency

Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter suppression Voter suppression
Overview       * Resentment Appreciation Appreciation Resentment
  Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural war

 

Notice three similarities, marked with an asterisk, between the populists of the right and left. The core fight is cultural, not economic, focused on identity politics. Second, incumbents were challenged from both ends of the spectrum. Third, both the far left (relative to American politics) and the far right engage in the politics of resentment, but with different identities in play in defence of the “oppressed.” The oppressed on the right are the hard core of a traditional demography left behind by the culture and the economy of globalism. On the left they are not only oppressed domestic minorities (Hispanics and Blacks in America), but oppressed nations abroad.

Note also that socio-economic and structural factors in the difference between right and left – class, religion, income and education – though clearly still present, have taken a back seat to cultural conflicts and identity issues. This may be because of secularization as well as widespread access to satisfying basic needs. Certainly, the liberalization of social mores has influenced debates over abortion, gender preferences and preferred modes of dying – euthanasia. Thus, though socio-economic factors both influence and colour the identity wars, the core conflict is over the mode in which the full expression of the persona is expressed. That may also be why the idiosyncratic personalities of leaders on both the left and the right have gained in prominence.

In fact, the conflict within both the left and right may be characterized as one between the importance of socio-economic versus socio-cultural factors. The conservative right favours deregulation, free trade, a restricted role for trade unions and an emphasis on entrepreneurship. The populist quasi-authoritarian right uses the state for protecting “the nation” against imagined threats. On the left, the liberal left favours a state in which the state plays a protective economic role, but on the far left plays a protective “national” role, though the nation protected is very different than the one on the right.

It may be that the Industrial Revolution resulted in class warfare, but the Information Revolution brought a different war, not so much between the rich and the poor, but nevertheless betwixt two “nations” between which there is neither intercourse nor sympathy but rather ignorance of one another’s habits, thoughts and feelings. The two nations might as well inhabit different planets.

In this war, radically different uses of the new media play as critical a role as the printing press played in the Industrial Revolution, though, in the background, there have been very important economic and structural shifts.

Blue collar workers have lost their jobs rather than being drawn into an industrial work force at the lowest pay levels. Menial work shifted back to service rather than manufacturing as in the pre-industrial period; since 2000, five million factory jobs have disappeared in the U.S. At the same time, in the Information Era, there has been the rise of a new gross economic inequality where productive gains have gone almost exclusively to the top .1%. The populist and liberal left recognize that automation and computers have led to the demise while the right populists blame international bankers and/or trade partners. But the left populists also blame the latter, not for exploitation but for a failure to offer protection and ensure a just distribution. Further, the failure is global and the worst victims are those forced to migrate and/or become refugees. The latter numbers have doubled in the last two decades.

As my chart indicates, the divisions within the Democratic Party and on the Left are not marked over whether to support trade unionism or the prudence of pushing single payer health insurance, but primarily over cultural issues in the name of Third World solidarity and global anti-racism.

Our focus here is the USA and left populism versus liberalism. There are similarities between left and right populism, namely: attacks on the rule of law; on the bureaucracy; against the mainstream media; a portrait of a battle between the virtuous ‘ordinary’ masses and a nefarious or corrupt establishment or elite; an emphasis on the general will versus responsible representative democracy, and an opposition to capitalist globalism. But the differences between left and right populism are starker. They can be summarized as follows:

Issues Right Populism Left Populism
     
Rights Critics of human rights Defenders of human rights
Favourite nations Saudi Arabia Palestinian nationalism
Migration Anti-immigrant Anti-colonial immigration
Mobility Oppose international mobility of the poor Pro non-colonial mobility
Geography Rural Urban
Education Lacking quality tertiary education Graduates of tertiary education
Gender Masculine Feminine
Modes of organization Mass rallies Movements and causes
Boundaries Exclusionist Inclusionist
Political propensities Authoritarian Anarchist
Leadership Attracted to political outsiders – billionaires Attracted to grass roots outsiders
Protection Self Oppressed others
Hatred Xenophobia & racism Anti-Zionist antisemitism

Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post (13 September 2018) recently wrote a piece entitled, “The Threat to democracy – from the left” and pointed to attacks by the left against speakers on campus ranging from Stephen K. Bannon to Condoleezza Rice.  For Zakaria, as much as he disagrees with him, Bannon “is an intelligent and influential ideologist, a man who built the largest media platform for the new right, ran Trump’s successful campaign before serving in the White House, and continues to articulate and energize the populism that’s been on the rise throughout the Western world.” As a liberal, Zakaria defends not only his right to speak, but the duty to offer him a platform. The populist left regards him as a present and certain danger and some would even deny him the right to speak. Civil liberties remain crucial for liberals but are expendable for left populists in the name of solidarity with and respect for the oppressed.

The populist left goes beyond the resistance and debates of liberals to demand direct and active opposition to defeat the toxic marriage of white nationalism and an entrenched plutocracy.  Unlike the right, left populists are not machos. Unlike Donald Trump, they would never praise Montana Republican representative Greg Gianforte for body slamming a reporter (DT – “any guy who can do a body slam…he’s my guy”). Instead, they focus on building networks rather than frontier virtues.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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On the Competition for Recognition Part VIB Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

On the Competition for Recognition

[This is an absolutely must see film. A spoiler alert – though I do not detail the plot, I sometimes mention the outcome in order to define the theme and the satire of mythological right populism.]

Cowboy movies in their original form were truly and literally horse operas. The myths underpinning right-wing populism, and the rapscallions that populate that mob in imitation of their mythological fantasies, are satirized in the brilliant movie anthology by Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, FargoBarton Fink, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the 2018 digitally shot (an intended pun), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. The movie won the Golden Osella Award for best screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival.

In contrast, the populist left celebrates mutual security rather than a gun culture of individual liberty, a government that protects rather than allegedly tramples on our freedoms. This is a brutal, but at times deliberately gentle movie about the fantasy frontier of mythological America. And death! In contrast, the populist left celebrates life and a utopian future rather than a mythological past that is both dead and a paean to heroic dying. [In addition to titles, I will italicize all references to the American liberal and populist left to set off the contrast as well as to adumbrate my forthcoming analysis of those positions.]

Distances for left populist protesters are close and varied rather than “great and monotonous,” as the troubadour hero of the first vignette of the Coen film tells the audience in his sweet rather than rough voice, though he is speedier with a gun than any gunslinger I ever saw. Yet he looks like a rube if you ever saw one. Tim Blake Nelson (who played Delmar O’Donnell beside George Clooney and John Turturro in O Brother, Where Art Thou? a real rube who believed that sirens turned his chain-gang buddy into a toad) plays this ironic version of Gene Autry, but he can cuss as well as strum a guitar. As well as being extremely dexterous, he is a verbal gymnast with weighty words like Archimedean and sonorous sibilants – “the San Saba songbird is my sobriquet [nickname] of preference.” The latter skill matches his quick trigger fingers. And he deserves to wear white for he condemns the violation of the rules of this establishment and behaviour against local norms.

Opportunities are infinite in the wide-open spaces of the west, especially the opportunity to be killed arbitrarily. Considering the repeated extolling of taking fate in one’s own hand, fate seems all to frequently to deliver a bad hand. Instead of the tall tales of a dusty leather-bound and worn volume full of colour plates, the populist left offers visions of an egalitarian and caring future.

In the Coen film, the first tall tale is located in New Mexico, as much for its name as for its perfect setting. The most unlikely hero, played by Nelson, is a short and thin and mousy gunslinger, nothing like the roughest and toughest and tallest rugged cowboy type. He is more of a dandy than a tumbling tumbleweed, though he wears white, rides a white horse, sings cowboy songs and shoots anyone who challenges him – but always in a fair fight for he is not a “proper outlaw.” He joins a poker game in a stand-in for the Goodnews Saloon and is dealt a “dead man’s hand.” After all, he is a true cowboy, a ramblin’ gamblin’ man. He survives to sing and entertain after his kill, the cowboy song, “Shirley [or Surly] Joe,” a play on the original “Curly Joe from Idaho.”

This becomes a dance number. Everyone, except the dead poker player and his outraged brother, join in. After all, Nelson denies he is a misanthrope as his wanted poster suggests. But that is his tragic flaw. Nelson dies at the hands of another gunslinger, not as a bow to brotherly love but to arbitrary death. He is killed, not by stealth or skill, but by the other cheating. In total shock and surprise, Nelson looks bewildered as he examines the bullet that has travelled through his skull and pierced his Stetson before he flies aloft on his angel wings to the heavens above. Nelson had been shot before he was ready. The good-natured Nelson meets a bad end in an anarchic culture that rhetorically celebrates fair play while, in practice, ignoring the rules of a duel.

In contrast, fairness is the bottom line of the populist left, not the fairness of the rules of fighting to the finish, but the fairness of rules to enable a fruitful life.

In the second story of the anthology, “Near Algodones.” [Algodones is a Mexican border town famous for its medical tourism], also set in New Mexico, we do encounter a tall and handsome but truly dim-witted cowboy played by James Franco. Instead of a sharp shooter, he is a fumbling idiot defeated by a banker dressed in the protective gear of cooking pots and a washboard. He meets his end by being accused and convicted of cattle rustling when he cannot even rustle up enough to survive. Instead of linking with others to save himself and thrive, he relies on himself to doom that self in the face of much more powerful natural forces of a polity that uses and abuses the rule of law.

Liam Neeson plays Harry Melling in the third tale, the “Meal Ticket.” It is perhaps the most repulsive story in the whole anthology and is shot in the evening hours as if to hide the beauty of Colorado and show off only its dark and scruffy American roots. If Buster Scruggs was always smiling and upbeat, Liam Neeson is the very opposite; his role is a grumpy, heartless and mean-spirited huckster playing to smaller and smaller crowds until his audience has dwindled to five disinterested stragglers who keep their coins in their pockets. Meanness is matched with meanness.

Instead of protecting the weak and the handicapped, Neeson’s character uses an armless and legless orator to earn his way in the Wild West, portrayed as cold and indifferent and increasingly bored, by reciting the words of the tale of Cain and Abel and of The Gettysburg Address. The contrast between the words he mouths and the local governing social norms could not be in greater stark contrast. The limbless orator cannot use body language to communicate, so the expression all comes through his mellifluous tone and his loquacious mastery of speech. Neeson then presumably (it is not shown) discards the progeny who has helped him earn his living, echoing the words from The Merchant of Venice that adumbrate the orator’s death falling “as the gentle rain from heaven.” Why does Neeson do it? In favour of a more profitable clever chicken. So goes the way of survival of the fittest, the precise trope opposed by the mantra of the mutually caring, merciful and protective left.

In the fourth and most beautifully photographed and aptly named tale, “All Gold Canyon,” where Colorado is revealed in all its golden beauty under the sun above, Tom Waits, a grizzled prospector, digs up one hole after another, each deeper and wider and longer than the previous one, until he digs a hole that seems to be his own grave as a stranger suddenly appears to threaten his great find, “Mister Pocket.”  The pursuit of gold at the cost of despoiling nature is a central if not the main target of the populist left.

The fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” starring Joe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, is most akin to a long short story rather than a short anecdote. Shot in Nebraska, it opens with a crazy conversation at a boarding house as she and her hapless but domineering brother set out finally to move forward towards their fortune at the end of The Oregon Trail. The long wagon trail evokes memories of hundreds of westerns that I have seen, including perhaps the most memorable and oldest one about wagon trains headed to Oregon, The Long Trail. Or perhaps there is a reference back to the 1959 western, The Oregon Trail. After all, there is a strong similarity between Prudence Cooper in that film and Alice Longabaugh. The realism and physical beauty of “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are at odds with the allegorical references of the plot.

James Polk, a protégé of Andrew Jackson and the 11th president of the USA, acquired Texas and then the whole of the southwest in the war with Mexico. He delivered another diplomatic coup to the future of Canada by acquiring the Oregon Territory in negotiations with Britain, pioneering the rough and tough diplomatic style of no-holds barred political negotiations while seeding the region with American guerilla forces in preparation for war against Britain.

In contrast to the actual history, the dialogue of “The Gal Who Got Rattled” has the tone and rhetorical pace of the Bible. However, Alice’s “romance” with Bill Heck (William Knapp) is pure, but purely transactional. The tough, rough cowboy, Heck, is tender-hearted and considerate. This time a dog, President Pierce, is the inadvertent source of fate. The dog was named after Franklin Pierce, the 14th U.S. president who beat the Democratic incumbent, Millard Fillmore, but failed to reconcile the north and south over allowing slavery in Kansas.

The dog survives, but not the female hero. Macho America was revived, but this time Pierce made a botch of it, alienating the abolitionists on the one hand by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act in Kansas and Nebraska without preventing the strong propensity of the South to secede from the union. In spite of the high-mindedness of Bill Heck, the low-minded dogs again win. In contrast, the populist left and its feminine revolution are determined to let “all dogs go to heaven,” especially mousy female ones. [No insult intended, just an interpretation of satire.]

The last tale, “The Mortal Remains,” obviously unlike the other vignettes, was shot on a sound stage and is perhaps the most subtle of the satirical pieces. It is helpful if you saw and can recall John Ford’s archetypal movie, Stagecoach with John Wayne. which also follows a mismatched group of strangers from a variety of backgrounds riding west in a stagecoach, each equally uncomfortable sitting beside the others.

From the claustrophobic inside of a stagecoach, in such great contrast to the wide-open spaces of the rest of the movie, we listen to the mellifluous orations respectively of, and initially totally surprisingly, a trapper (Chelcie Ross). He describes his relationship with a native woman, neither knowing the language of the other. But it did not matter since all humans are the same. All are equal in the eyes of God. However, in contrast to the populist left, the trapper insists that all are ferrets.  This is the animism of the populist right as distinct from the humanism of the populist left.

A proper and religious lady (Tyne Daly as Mrs. Betjeman) retorts that humans are not the same; they are divided into sinners and those who follow the word of God. Moral values divide humans. The cynical Frenchman (the Canadian actor, Saul Rubinek as René) sitting on her other side, extolls subtlety and nuance, complexity and diversity, while slyly making suggestions that Mr. Betjeman‘s love for Mrs. Purity was indeed (wink, wink) “based on moral and spiritual hygiene.” With the raising of pluralism and diversity when the dominant theme is equality, the suggestion is that we get cynicism rather than just the scepticism esteemed by the populist left.

Thigpen, the Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), turns out to be the head “reaper” or bounty hunter, with the suggestion that perhaps all humans are just grist for death in exchange for money. The populist left, on the other hand, appears to disdain transactional exchanges. Thigpen is an English snot and can be contrasted with his down-to-earth Irish partner, Clarence Brendon Gleeson, who sings the final ditty in the movie. The two partners carry the corpse into a mansion in the middle of nowhere with plenty of room for everyone. With some hesitation, the three others follow. René pauses, shrugs as if to say “What the Hell,” and enters.

The movie may be smart and snappy, wickedly wicked and equally cruel, but it is also a dark, hilarious and loquacious satire full of sardonic wit that parodies the underpinnings of the American myth of the West that is at the root of the fantasies of the American populist right.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jacob and Esau: Part II What’s In A Name?

Jacob [J] fled from his home to Aram, not because he felt guilty about stealing the blessing intended for his older brother, Esau [E], but because his mother told him that she overheard E say that he would kill J. (Genesis 27:41-42) There are a number of possible interpretations for the flight; many are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Rebekah [R] heard the threat and thought it was real and dangerous, but since E was a man who lived in the immediate, a man of impulse, she presumed the resentment and anger of her older twin son would subside, so J was urged to flee temporarily for his own safety;
  2. In context, the threat was an expression of understandable anger – I’m going to kill him – rather than of intent, but R wanted to err on the side of caution;
  3. R wanted J to flee even though she knew E would not kill J; after all, E was a hunter only for food and not for sport. E was not a killer. E had shown no inclination to kill his brother when J stole his birthright;

We could go on. The various interpretations suggest different motives and different human characteristics for each of the protagonists when they separate and when they get together again. J and Laban had not parted on good terms for his return trip either. In fact, Laban drew a line in the sand – in actuality, he built a pillar as a territorial marker. If J ever returned and crossed that line with any hostile intent, God would have to render judgement between them.

On route from Aran, J then entered Jordan and encountered God’s angels at a place he named Mahanaim, God’s camp. Why Mahanaim (מַחֲנָיִם)? Mahanaim means “two camps.” There will be two places to pass through, Mahanaim and Peniel. But neither will be the end point of the trip. Jacob will also divide his entourage into two camps in preparation for his meeting with E. There are also two brothers, each with his own camp. The divisions between all the sets are significant. The division between the two place names is one between a place of God versus a place for building an altar to God, though it is somewhat strange that J would not build an altar where he had met and been accompanied by angels.

What were the real feelings between the two brothers and what do they say about the character of each when J is just about to meet up with his brother two decades later. Again, there are several possible interpretations about the motives impelling the return. It could be a moment of reconciliation initiated by one of the twins. In the excellent movie directed by Peter Farrelly, Green Book, which we saw last evening, the issue of the reconciliation of estranged brothers is mentioned. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned black classical pianist on a concert tour through the Midwest and the South of the USA, is sitting in the back seat. He finally reveals a bit about himself to Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen), a working-class Italian-American who had agreed to be Dr. Shirley’s driver and bodyguard on the tour. Shirley tells Tony that he has one relative, an estranged brother. Tony advises Shirley that he should seek a reconciliation and that will only happen if someone takes the initiative to have a meeting. You have to start somewhere.

In the movie, nothing comes of the advice. It is simply a moment to help reveal Dr. Shirley’s profound loneliness. In Genesis, there is estrangement, but when Jacob initiates a meeting after over twenty years, it becomes clear that J does not want a reconciliation; he just wants to live without threat in his homeland.

ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם. 4 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.
ה  וַיְצַו אֹתָם, לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן, לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו:  כֹּה אָמַר, עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב, עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה. 5 And he commanded them, saying: ‘Thus shall ye say unto my lord Esau: Thus saith thy servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now.
ו  וַיְהִי-לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר, צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה; וָאֶשְׁלְחָה לְהַגִּיד לַאדֹנִי, לִמְצֹא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ. 6 And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favour in thy sight.’

Certainly, J is portrayed as fearing the return. On the one hand, he had to flee Aram and the clutches of Laban if he wanted to establish his own dynasty. However, the prospect of return did not seem promising either. Would E still hold a grudge? Would E still want to kill him? J, ever the innovator and dissembler, becomes as proactive in meeting up with E as he was in leaving Laban. He sent a message ahead to E about his return with the instruction for the servant to say where he had been – with his uncle Laban – and to send “oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants” and to tell E, whom he addressed as his Lord, that these gifts were intended so that J “may find favour in thy sight.”

No queries about their parents. No asking about whether E was married and had children. No request about how his health was. Nothing is said that J missed E. They were twins after all. And certainly no mention of affection or even apology for what J had done. Just an echo of Genesis 6:8 when Noah “found favour with the Lord” after God despaired about his decision to create humans and about the wicked consequence of that decision. In deep and profound regret, God vowed to destroy the world. Except Noah. J effectively sent his brother material goods and asked that he would himself find favour with E just as Noah had with God.

Recall that J’s mother told him that she would let him know when he could come back safely. She never did. Was this because E’s anger never subsided? Or was it because J had become so busy and so ambitious (and so in love) that his memory of his family had faded? The messenger returns and tells J that E is coming out to meet him with 400 men. The messenger does not say they were armed. Isn’t it reasonable to assume E was out to get him? If E just wanted to welcome J back, E could have come alone or with a servant or two. He did not have to bring 400 men.

Perhaps there was another motive for bringing the 400. E may have wanted to show that, contrary to the blessing that J received, E was more than blessed himself. He could command an army of 400. “I have grown very strong,” E wanted to convey to J.

J, a transactional diplomat to the end, does not send forth his men, either armed or unarmed. He sends forth his womenfolk and servants in two waves with gifts from his flocks, while he, cautious as ever, adopts a backup plan and takes up a defensive position so he can escape if needed.

בראשית לב:ח…וַיַּחַץ אֶת הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ וְאֶת הַצֹּאן וְאֶת הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת.לב:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה. Gen 32:8…He divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps,32:9 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”

But if he wanted to escape, why did J not just send sufficient animals and servants to show how prosperous he had become? Why divide his forces in two equal parts? It seems that he really feared E and may have wanted to send enough of too much to prove his prosperity without risking everything. At the same time, he wanted to hold back sufficient so that he could remain rich.

בראשית לב: וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים. לב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם. Gen 32:2 Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.

32:3 When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.

At Mahanaim, God was named אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (El-god-of-Israel), or possibly El (is) my God. Not YHWH. Not Adonai. But El. God becomes Jacob’s ruler. God becomes his God. Not a family god let alone a god for all of humanity.

The famous section now makes its appearance. J had sent all his family, all his servants, all his children across the river Jabbok and remained alone. J wrestles with the man or with an angel or with God or with his own inner demons or with E in his imagination immediately before their reunion.


כה  וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו  וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז  וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט  וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל:  כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל  וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא  וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל:  כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב  וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.

In the above verses, Jacob becomes Israel. He is renamed after wrestling all night with a “man” who was unable to pin J down. That “man” wrenched J’s hip. It was dislocated. The “man” asked to stop the match. It was daybreak. They had been wrestling all night. Jacob agreed, but only if the “man” blessed him. The man asked after his name. “Jacob,” he said. No longer. The man renamed him Israel, but refused to disclose his own name when asked by J. J named the place, Peniel for J declared that he had come face-to-face with the divine. We recall that upon meeting E, J said that it was like coming face-to-face with God.

 

The hip is where the thorax and abdomen connect with the legs that allow humans to move forward. The hip is key to locomotion. With a dislocated hip, J was forced to slow down, to stop calculating and pushing towards the future and to stop and think and consider before he went on. Look what happens at Peniel. J arrives there limping from the injury he suffered during his wrestling match. J builds his altar. At Peniel, God gives J instructions. The point of this trip, God tells J, is not to build altars to me, whether at Mahanaim or Peniel, but that J must return to Beth-El where J saw the ladder to heaven. That is where the altar should be built. Why Beth-El versus Mahanaim or Peniel?

Because J and God had a deal. God promised to bring J back to the land; J promised to make God his El, his leader. That was a promise made at Beth-El and it is to Beth-El that J must return to ensure the fulfillment of the promise. Eternal return here has a different meaning. To the place where you had your real beginning, where your destiny was clearly set forth for you, to that place shall you return. And though there are places where God is present and places where one thanks and worships God, the key place is where promises are made and promises are kept to ensure the future of a nation.

J then finally meets up with his estranged twin, E. embraces J. My former colleague, Marty Lockshin, in his commentary, “Esau Hates Jacob: But is Antisemitism a Halakha?” notes that, “Esau kisses Jacob upon the latter’s return from Haran.” There is no conflict. Esau is overwhelmed at the sight of his younger brother. He hugs him. While he wept and raged when J stole his blessing, he is now just as emotional with happiness with the reunion. Famously, in the Torah scroll, the word kiss is dotted (puncta extraordinaria), implying not that “a kiss is but a kiss,” but that this kiss was something more.

What are we to make of the reunion? Rashbam, against the general consensus, argues that E had only friendly and not hostile intentions. Jacob projected Laban onto E who, unlike Laban, was simply overjoyed to see his brother. J misunderstood E’s friendly intentions. E had always been direct with his emotions. He neither strategized nor lived for the long haul. J, in contrast with E, had remained as suspicious and devious as ever. However, when he saw how E had responded to their reunion, J insisted that E accept his gifts for “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10) Was this just fake flattery for Jacob insisted on returning separately and without accepting E’s offer of men to guard his entourage?

Let me now try to put the various pieces together to sort out the meaning of the narrative and specifically of the two names of Jacob. As I indicated above, in the geographical underpinnings, there are borders – between Jacob and Laban, between potentially hostile forces. Good fences make good neighbours. There is the place where God promises to protect you and the place where you thank God for the protection offered and build an altar. But the key place is neither, but Beth-El, the place where there is to be found a ladder or stairway to heaven, the place where promises on both sides are fulfilled. The ladder to heaven is the stairway – not roadway – of the future of a people.

The story is about the future, about destiny, about what it will take to make a nation. As good hearted, as strong, as close to his feelings as E was, in spite of his being the older brother, he did not have the “stuff” to build a nation. As an older brother, he was a fighter pilot but not the calculating strategist needed for long term survival. The text reads more like Machiavelli’s Prince than as a moral tale or, alternatively, a tale of hard realism. Jacob becomes Israel, not because he is a moral character or because he is able to fight for his life, but because he knows when to stay and craft a victory over time but flee when necessary to survive. He is neither a feelie nor a wheelie, but steely, with a two-sided character that is at once focused on the self, on the nation he would found, while keeping his eye on the long range future.

You may disagree with this as an interpretation. You may also reject the message. These are two different decisions to make.

 

 

 

 

What’s in a Name: Vayishlach Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

This is perhaps the most common question in commentaries on this section. Whether the commentary is entitled, “From Yaakov to Yisrael,” “Introspective Identity,” “The Name of Yisrael and Yeshurun,” “Your name is Israel,” “The Battle with Esav and the name Yisrael,” “Is It Yaakov or Yisrael,” “Yaakov and Yisrael: What’s in a Name?” “Yaakov Becomes Yisrael,” “Bolt of Inspiration 44 – Both names Are True,” “Yaakov’s Change of Name,” and on, and on, and on…, the question is discussed over and over again.

It is not as if there is a shortage of topics in this section. Some overlap, such as Jacob’s relationship to his brother, Esau. There is the tale of the rape of Dinah, which seems at first glance to have little if anything to do with naming and its meaning. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine. The Parashat is full of sex and betrayal. Yet, the story of Jacob wresting with the angel who blesses Jacob by changing his name is understandably a preoccupation.

However, there is another story about a change of name that ends the section. Rachel dies in childbirth and gives her son one name that is soon displaced when his father gives him another name. I will start there and then return to the story of Jacob’s name change.

But first a preamble. In Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene 2) set in Capulet’s orchard, on one of the most famous scenes in the Shakespearian repertoire, and one of the most romantic passages of all of literature, Romeo appears ruminating and talking to himself.

ROMEO:

He jests at scars that never felt a wound.


Enter Juliet above at a window.

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.
It is my lady; O, it is my love!
O that she knew she were!
She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold; ’tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

JULIET:

Ay me!

ROMEO:

She speaks.
O, speak again, bright angel! for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wond’ring eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.

JULIET:
            O Romeo, Romeo! Where art thou Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name!
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

ROMEO:

Aside.

Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

JULIET:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

ROMEO:

I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

JULIET:

What man art thou that, thus bescreen’d in night,
So stumblest on my counsel?

ROMEO:

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am.
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee.
Had I it written, I would tear the word
.

 

The theme is simple and direct. Two lovers are separated because their families, the Capulets and the Montagues, are feuding. Each of the lovers would surrender their names for the sake of their love. They hate their names. Their names separate rather than unite them. Names are tribal. Names are divisive. Names are identified with conflict. For what’s in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

However, the human story in the Torah begins by giving things names. An apple is an apple. A banana is a banana. A rose is indeed a rose and would be something else by another name. Names have meanings. Names have significance. But not in the world of romantic love.

The story of Jacob in relationship to Rachel is one of the few stories of romance in the biblical text. After all, Jacob was smitten with Rachel and worked seven years to win her hand in marriage. And when tricked by Laban, Rachel’s father, who substituted his older and plain daughter in place of Rachel in the bridal bed, Jacob worked another seven years to finally gain her hand in marriage. Compared to such dedication and sacrifice, Romeo’s self-torment as Juliet stands on her balcony seems like infatuation rather than deep love, perhaps the same infatuation Jaccob and Rachel felt for one another when they first met.

But that is not how the love affair ends. Near the end of the Parashat, in chapter 35, verses 13-20 read as follows:

יג  וַיַּעַל מֵעָלָיו, אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ. 13 And God went up from him in the place where He spoke with him.
יד  וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ–מַצֶּבֶת אָבֶן; וַיַּסֵּךְ עָלֶיהָ נֶסֶךְ, וַיִּצֹק עָלֶיהָ שָׁמֶן. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink-offering thereon, and poured oil thereon.
טו  וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶת-שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ שָׁם אֱלֹהִים–בֵּית-אֵל. 15 And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Beth-el.
טז  וַיִּסְעוּ מִבֵּית אֵל, וַיְהִי-עוֹד כִּבְרַת-הָאָרֶץ לָבוֹא אֶפְרָתָה; וַתֵּלֶד רָחֵל, וַתְּקַשׁ בְּלִדְתָּהּ. 16 And they journeyed from Beth-el; and there was still some way to come to Ephrath; and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.
יז  וַיְהִי בְהַקְשֹׁתָהּ, בְּלִדְתָּהּ; וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמְיַלֶּדֶת אַל-תִּירְאִי, כִּי-גַם-זֶה לָךְ בֵּן. 17 And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the mid-wife said unto her: ‘Fear not; for this also is a son for thee.’
יח  וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ, כִּי מֵתָה, וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, בֶּן-אוֹנִי; וְאָבִיו, קָרָא-לוֹ בִנְיָמִין. 18 And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing–for she died–that she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.
יט  וַתָּמָת, רָחֵל; וַתִּקָּבֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה, הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם. 19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath–the same is Beth-lehem.
כ  וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה, עַל-קְבֻרָתָהּ–הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת-רָחֵל, עַד-הַיּוֹם. 20 And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; the same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.

Jacob set up a pillar to commemorate where he spoke with God which he named, Beth-el, “House of God.” He also set up a pillar upon Rachel’s grave known, not just until the time when the Torah was written, but until the present as Rachel’s Tomb. Between those two bookends, Rachel gave birth to her second son whom she named Ben-oni, son of my pain, son of my suffering, before she died in childbirth. Jacob, after the love of his life died, renamed the boy, Binyomin (בנימים), Benjamin, perhaps son of my right hand. This does not seem very respectful to the love of his life, usurping the name she gave their son with his own.

One explanation is that Jacob did not want his youngest son, who became his favourite, to live under the shadow of possible guilt that his being born was responsible for his mother’s death. His father wanted to give him a positive message, a very positive one, by designating Benjamin as his favourite son, son of his right hand. Or it could have been, not about favouritism, but about a son whom he wanted to carry forth with his strength of his right hand. Or perhaps a third meaning; he wanted Benjamin to be straight and not deceitful, a characteristic associated with left-handedness; he did not want his son to be sinister. In any of these interpretations, the renaming was a romantic gesture, not one of disrespect or supplanting, but of heightening the prospects for his youngest son.

But Benjamin has another meaning, son of my old age. In this sense, there is a rivalry between his son remembering his mother’s pain or, alternatively, remembering that he, his father lived long enough so that he, Benjamin could be born. Do you want a name associated with your mother’s death and pain or with your father’s perseverance and determination unto old age?

But Rachel’s death on giving birth is not simply a matter of pain, but of greater perseverance, of seeing the birth through in spite of the pain she experienced. In this, there is an implied remonstration to Jacob – he remained someone who never knew himself and wanted to hide himself and, therefore, as a projection, also wanted to hide and bury the memory of the pain that Rachel went through. For the stories tend to focus on what Jacob sacrificed to win the hand of Rachel.

But what about Rachel? She was beautiful. She could have had the pick of anyone. But she not only waited 14 years, but was willing to share the marriage bed with her older sister. That is real sacrifice! Rachel knew that Jacob was by nature a dissembler and supplanter, not only of his brother Esau, but even of his wife whom he sincerely loved. Perhaps he even knew that the name she gave her son would be replaced, but at least her youngest son would know that it had been replaced. It was her gift to the truth of her existence and the truth of his birth rather than fake news built on fantasies that perhaps characterized his father. For his father, though extremely hard working, was not only timid, not only a mother’s boy, but a dissembler, even when his brother wanted to forgive and forget for love of his younger twin.

In the future, the tribe of Benjamin almost became extinct in the period of the civil war at the time of the rule of the judges and, in the war between the northern and the southern tribes, the remnant of the tribe of Benjamin was absorbed by the tribe of Judah. The name of Benjamin as a distinct line in history was eventually extinguished. As his mother suffered in pain and died, so would his progeny.

Whatever the name, whatever the meaning of the name, it cannot simply be tossed away on the ash heap of history as both Romeo and Juliet were willing to do for the sake of love. For the sake of real rather than romantic love, we want our children to remember us and to know what we want, what we expect of them, what we hope for them.

But what about Jacob being renamed Israel?

 

To be continued

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

That is an interpretation for another day. Sudfice to say, Israel survived. Israel lives on until this day even though eleven of the twelve tribes disappeared in history. For Jacob earned his knew name when he not only prevailed over man but over the divine.

On Fires and the Political Right

 My plan when I woke this morning had been to write on the divisions of the political left in the United States as part of my series on the Competition for Recognition. A number of responses from readers that have been lurking in my mind have induced me to diverge. I will focus on a few responses, though some of the other more significant comments I received will inevitably creep into the blog.

The first was very brief.

“What is to give light must endure burning.”  Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning.

This was a response more to the tale of my nightmare than of my analysis of the political right. But the two are related as I will try to show. Frankl, whom I have not read for years, was a Holocaust survivor and psychologist who came to the conclusion that the key to survival in the Nazi concentration camps was the maintenance of hope. He did not call his quest for meaning a quest for recognition, but the two certainly have a great deal of overlap. The signature of humanity was not desire (the need to satisfy the id in Freudian terms), otherwise defined as the quest for pleasure. Nor was it life per se defined as the quest for survival and, therefore, a key condition of survival, achieving power – again, in Freudian terms, to enable one’s self to become a superego in determining values for oneself and others. The key was neither the id nor the superego, but the development of the ego in interaction with others, in the search for meaning or, what I have called, the quest for recognition.

The stress was not narcissistic nor engaged in a search for power over others in the interest of preserving and enhancing your own power, but in assuming responsibility for yourself in relationship to others. We are responsible for choosing how we respond to and deal with another’s search for recognition.

That always involves pain. If one is a soldier or first responder, this involves the risk of pain which in its chronic mental form becomes PTSD. If one has lived a life significantly without pain and if one uses part of that beneficence to help those who experienced PTSD, in addition to the satisfaction in helping another, there will be some cost – the experience of vicarious pain. But both sufferers and carers or care-givers can also endure the worst of suffering and die or burn out. It is possible that nothing but a wasteland can emerge from the process. The best way to avoid the third option is for the two to interact, the direct and the vicarious sufferer, but not so much that the care giver – the first and second responders as you will – themselves get caught up in the conflagration. Holding onto hope is not a mantra but a very difficult challenge.

This is pithy analysis of a pithy quote with all the necessarily attendant miscues and distortions. But it gets at a truth that is very different than the one Plato suggested in his allegory of the cave.  In The Republic, Plato envisioned prisoners chained to a log and looking at the cave wall. They could not see the fire behind them for they were tied up so that they could not turn their heads. All they could see were the shadows cast by puppeteers standing between the backs of these totally confined figures and the fire behind. Since they knew no better, these people who lacked even the freedom of mobility, even the mobility of their heads and their senses, these humans chained to a log by mental dogmas and blinders, took these shadows on the cave walls to be reality.

Note two things. For Plato, fire is a source of light but not of warmth or heat or even burning. It offers no pain and is merely a purely cognitive experience. Secondly, if those prisoners on the log are unchained and turn around to discover the source of light and the puppeteers, they suddenly recognize the cause of what they see. They suddenly recognize that the images they see are only appearances and two-dimensional reflections of a concrete reality. They would see the cover of a book reflected on the cave wall and take the cover to be the book.  To comprehend, we have to go beyond appearances to perceive real objects and name them rather than objects as they appear reflected on a cave wall. We have to move from sensibility to perception.

We could travel further and not just turn our heads. We could get up, walk past the fire to the opening of the cave and see the light of day as the true reality rather than either just creating a taxonomy of objects or a taxonomy of shadows. We could move from sensibility through perception to understanding and comprehend the laws of causation that link and connect the interaction of objects.

However, there are two observations about Plato’s allegory, one that refers to what we cannot do and the other to that which we do not do. We cannot look directly at the sun, the source of all categories and scientific laws. If we do, we will burn our retinas. The second, what we do not do as we relate objects and their interaction to one another, as we relate agents to one another. There is no empathy in Plato’s allegory. There is no exposure of one’s own pain or exposure to the pain of others.

With regard to the first, as one psychoanalyst reader of mine from California noted with respect to my nightmare about the forest fires and my missing wife and children and my futile search for them, the dream did convey a sense of vulnerability – my physical chassis has grown old and in need of replacement parts. But so is the larger landscape. The California fires are not just fires in which we roast marshmallows and gather around to sing camp songs. Nor are they simply fires which burn through one forest or destroy a home or two. They are fires from hell. They leave a wasteland. And I feel the impotency not only to put out those fires, but the impotency to protect my children who are dedicated to combatting climate change, but do so in spite of their loss of hope that humans will get their act together to reverse the terrible course on which we are on.

Therefore, I feel frozen as well as empathetic, impotent not only about my personal demise, but I pick up the stress and strain on my children and grandchildren as they realistically contemplate that all their personal hopes will be dashed. It is shocking to think that the possibility of hope in a Nazi concentration camp may have been greater than the ability of young people to feel hope in the contemporary political climate and inadequate response to – and even denial of – climate change.

Kate Julian in her excellent article, “Why are young people having so little sex?” in the current Atlantic, explores in depth a myriad of possible explanations from the following list:

“Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.”

Julian does not explore the possibility that the search for meaning, the search for recognition of others and by others, the exercise of hope, may have been seriously stunted. This may have contributed to the increasing impotence and disinterest in humans, men especially, connecting with others and developing a relationship. If the fires of passion are increasingly becoming dying embers, is there a link with the ideology of the right and Trump’s response to the forest fires in California?

One responder to my blog from Rhode Island thought I had been too soft on the Right and given the conservative as opposed to populist right a pass when he argued that the intellectual right and their political partners have been driven by a very negative agenda with the intent of burning through organized labour as they passed on tax cuts to the wealthiest underpinned by a barely hidden racism. The economic conservatives merely offered an intellectual cover, were merely shadow boxers on Plato’s cave wall. They exhibited a total absence of empathy, an absence of compassion, for the working poor and black and Hispanic minorities.

I’ve been hearing Republican intellectuals go on for years about a “conservative” approach to the rule of law.  And yet, such conservative values pale in comparison to the display of naked power when it comes to the denial of voting rights (Bush v Gore), or the denial of giving Merrick Garland a hearing.  Their so-called “values” have been a con game for 50 years, although now – in the age of Trump and Fox News – they no longer need to pretend or even be ashamed of what they have wrought.  The idea that there is an actual argument on the right is a lovely fiction that liberals enjoy telling themselves because, after all, the left has genuine debates, the right must have them as well.  I’m sorry, but the emperor has no clothes (and hasn’t had them for half a century).

On the other hand, another reader thought that I had been, and have been, too hard on Donald Trump. The “tree huggers’ of the left opposed clear cutting and replanting old growth forests with seedlings, when, he argued, “cleared areas create a natural barrier to end fires destroying the whole forest.” If vast areas are left uncut and untouched, “Nature will burn its own ‘clear cut.’

“Trump is therefore right. Current policy, where massive human housing is placed in the midst of an old growth forest floor, particularly in dry areas of California, is a recipe for certain disaster. One cannot discuss California without pointing out their precarious fresh water capacity. After all Howard, California has a population equal to CANADA, but compared to our verdant, massive, fresh water paradise, Californians need to clean-out their forest floors or clear out people from their tinder box hinterlands. Their problem is different from ours. They have a severe water shortage and a very thin soil base.”

he last sentence is certainly true. But is the rest? Does Trump deserve a pass on this one at least? Is the problem one of forest management, too few forest fire suppression workers, obsolete and inadequate equipment and a lack of an overall strategy? I myself think the latter is to some extent true. But why? And does this get Donald Trump off the hook? Those forced to breathe the most poisonous air in the world at this time should not be left on the hook and hung out to dry. They have been living under darkened skies with clouds of smoke blocking the sunlight as flames whipped up literally around them.

Over a thousand people may be dead. What did DT have to say when he finally visited the destroyed city of Paradise with a population of 27,000 and burned through 230 square miles? 10,000 homes were destroyed in surrounding communities. “This is very sad to see.”  For someone prone to hyperbole, this was an understatement to say the least in response to the Camp Fire II that had engulfed Paradise, known as a retirement community though it had 15 schools at different levels, including Butte College. What is left is only charred chassis of cars and the remains of incinerated homes and buildings. “Right now, we want to take care of the people who have been so badly hurt.” Not a very strong expression of compassion. Methinks Trumps does not suffer from compassion fatigue so much as he conveys someone challenged by an absence of empathy. He no sooner dipped his finger into the stream of compassion than he withdrew it and reverted back to his immediate response – blaming others.

Bad forest management was the problem for DT.

“There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

At least there were no more words during Trump’s visit about withholding emergency aid for the victims. Then he referred to the President of Finland, but that president denied that he had ever said that Finland controlled wildfires by sweeping the forest floor.  It is also not true, contrary to what Trump said, that Finland has no problem with fires. Ironically, it lacked sufficient fires while Sweden suffered from massive blazes this past year under the same extreme heat this past summer. As did Russia to the east of Finland.

But the reason was not raking the forest floor. The President of Finland had not mentioned raking to Trump. He did discuss controlled burns. But California uses controlled burns. The difference is that Finland has much greater precipitation, much lower average temperatures and lacks the hot dry winds of California where the risk was too great for a so-called controlled burn to rage out of control.

The difference between Finland and Sweden has been attributed to different forest management practices in both countries with similar geographies and weather patterns. In recent years, conservative governments in Sweden have cut back on monies for forest management and opened the forests to broader clear cutting while the Finnish government has increased the allocations to forest management. The recent social democratic government was unable to reverse this trend.

Finland, as my reader defending Trump implied as practicing good forest management, under a conservative president, Sauli Niinsto was able to continue and even expand the forest management practices of previous social democratic governments. Finland divided its forests into small containable compartments. Sweden has not. In Sweden in September, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a social democrat, lost a vote of confidence. The far-right in the elections had made significant gains at the expense of both the social democrats and their traditional conservative opponents who had been in power prior to Lotven. The tale of responsibility for improved practices is not simply attributable to right and left, though the far right has certainly made governance in Sweden much more difficult.

Both Scandinavian countries view climate change as the major challenge of our era. However, Trump insisted that the fires had not made him change his denial of the effects of climate change. Yet he would conclude after his visit to Paradise that, “I think everybody’s seen the light and I don’t think we’ll have this again to this extent.” Climate scientists overwhelmingly profess the opposite to be true.

But has Trump seen the light? The surprise for me is that some of the victims still professed hope in an area that Trump won by four percentage points in 2016. “I hope he helps us. I hope he sees what we’re all going through,” said Casey Belcher, 33. “I hope he sees what we’re all going through and he feels our emotional pain.” Amy Velazquez, whose husband worked day and night as a firefighter, said, “Threatening to not send resources was the biggest blow. They’re thinking is hope alive? It was pretty devastating.”

People, especially leaders, chained to dogmatic positions and fixated on the shadows on a cave wall, are least likely to either discern causal connections and connect with those who suffer. As Bryan Belcher said, “The fact that we are not the ones to blame in this — why should we have to be the ones stuck with the hardship of it?” Others were more accusatory as Trump’s motorcade passed holding banners that read, “Climate change” and “Apocalypse!”

Of course, this is what Trump does, first focusing on blame and directing the blame onto others and away from himself. Then, in his almost complete ignorance and total distortions of sources of authority, he pronounces the problem solved as if he were god who says and there is. Trump says what is and then there is not. Of course, the causes of the fire are many. Building homes in a wilderness as in Paradise is itself problematic. Further, there had been previous warnings. Ten years earlier, the Humboldt Fire swept through 22,800 acres in that area. The next month, Camp Fire I – 2018 was the year of Camp Fire II – forced the evacuation of parts of Paradise but the fire never crossed the Feather River.

Residents thought that the Feather River to the east and Butte Creek to the west would continue to protect the homes spread out and built on a wide ridge between the two canyons. But this time the fires were so intense and the winds so strong that the canyons acted like a large chimney and residents fled with few belongings in cars surrounded by walls of flames and blocked by cars already charred. The major cause, as everyone but DT seems to know, is not forest management, but drought and non-seasonal high winds that whipped up from the high pressure areas of Nevada and Utah towards the cooler coast. On 8 November, humidity had plummeted as hot, dry winds swept over the parched vegetation. It was already a month or more after seasonal rains were expected, but again had not arrived. The vegetation on the ground was even more parched than usual.

Was poor forest management also a problem? Did tree huggers prevent wood from being cut? The Forest Practice Division, in fact, permits tree harvesting on a private as well as commercial scale, but also regulates it to protect forests, fish, wildlife and streams. However, the Forest Practice Division does not even have the power to reject a Timber Harvesting Plan of the major commercial operators as long as the plans are prepared by registered foresters. From 500 to 1,500 THPs are approved each year.

Thus, though regulated by rules and best practices, harvesting is not overseen by government. Further, given the resistance to taxes characteristic of the United States, especially of regions that are politically red, the firefighters are a volunteer force. If there is a problem with forest management on the northern part of the state, it is not with too much regulation or misguided regulation, but with too little government involvement in management, control and firefighting when necessary under the California Forest Practices Act.

The southern fires were not even forest fires. Fiery tumbleweed missiles flew through the air like cannonballs. The Woolsey Fire burned through 146 square miles in Los Angeles County and parts of Ventura County as well as parts of Malibu where many wealthy homeowners were able to hire their own private firefighting force to save their homes. The causes of the fires in an area of brush rather than forests were again dry vegetation and the hot and dry Santa Ana winds. This was also true of The Hill Fire in Santa Rosa Valley east of the Woolsey fire, but it was stopped, not by clear cutting, but by a large patch of land destroyed by fire five years earlier.

Management of forests and scrub lands, the planning of houses in the midst of all this, some management problems, are all contributing factors. But the main causes have been drought and high dry winds seen by most scientists to be a by-product of climate change.

DT does not deserve a pass. As one survivor described the maelstrom, “the gates of hell had opened up. Black and red was all you could see.” In the case of the environment, the light demands that we NOT endure burning while we burn with compassion on an interpersonal level.

The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:

 

  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender

Incumbency

Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”

 

 

 

 

Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.

 

10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?