Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


ALTTEXT

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.



From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.



Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?


These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

A Developing Reputation


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The two young, sari-clad women, one in blue and one in orange, stand in the thatched-roof meeting hall, take hold of the microphone and join their voices.

“We don’t need any fancy materials,” they croon by heart. “What we need is just some food to live. We don’t ask for a refrigerator, a TV or a car. We just need some small capital to start a business.”

The audience of women in the village of Alamarai Kuppam applaud with enthusiasm. The few men, seated or hovering around the edges, are more circumspect, but they, too, nod approvingly.

Call it women’s lib, post-tsunami-India style.

The outpouring of financial support that followed the 2004 tsunami has accelerated efforts to improve the lives of rural women — an initiative that goes well beyond helping families recover from the tsunami.

“This disaster has given us a space to create gender equality,” says Attapan, the director of Rural Organization for Society Education (ROSE). ROSE is among the Indian nonprofits supported by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which focuses on international development based on the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

Before, says Attapan, many fishing villages functioned almost as closed societies, distrustful of outsiders, with women locked into traditional, subservient roles. It’s still a country of arranged marriages, and, in places, instances of girl infanticide and widow burning.

But in this region, when the tidal wave took everything, these villagers had to look outside for help. The women, it turned out, were eager for expanded roles. And many men quickly realized that not only could they benefit from the outsiders, who brought resources and new ideas, but also from the resourcefulness of their own spouses, daughters and mothers.

Attapan’s organization has worked with women from fishing villages to help them develop business skills, such as tailoring and growing and selling herbs.

The two singing women are performing the homemade anthem of an informal women’s “congress” from 14 villages that has gathered in Alamarai Kuppam under the auspices of the Ghandian Unit for Integrated Development (GUIDE). GUIDE is trying to make women politically powerful and to break down traditional Hindu class divisions.

The caste system, although officially abolished in 1949, remains a potent and denigrating social force. The mixture of castes among the women gathered in Alamarai Kuppam is striking: It includes Dalit participants, the group once known as untouchables; they still suffer pervasive discrimination.

At the meeting, women rise group by group to proclaim their successes.

“We stopped the men from making alcohol in our village,” one women says.

Another exclaims: “We made demands for tsunami relief and got it.”

“We got schools to reduce their fees,” a third says.

This activism is true and courageous feminism, says R. Vasantha, development consultant for GUIDE. “In traditional society, if a woman speaks out about a problem, especially a problem with an abusive husband, she is an immoral woman. These women will now go to a police station and file a case.”

A delegation of women from four villages recently demanded that a man reserve some property and inheritance for a second wife he had taken, as well as for the woman’s baby. And in Alamarai Kuppam, women and GUIDE workers went to the police to halt an arranged marriage between an unwilling 13-year-old and an older man who wanted a second wife.

The 13-year-old’s parents had made the deal for money. Villagers later raised money to help the family.

And, when it comes to the business theme of the homemade anthem, these women aren’t waiting for opportunity to come looking for them. They’ve opened fish stalls in nearby towns to sell the village catch. And they’re going to start an ice factory to keep their fish fresh and to sell ice to others.

Working with women, particularly educating them, is probably the “best single investment” that can be made in international development, said Michael Cohen, director of the New School for Social Research’s graduate program in international affairs in New York. “It helps on the income side and reduces the family size.”

Both elements, he added, are key to reducing rural poverty.

 

Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site: http://www.jdc.org/

American Jewish World Service
Web site: http://www.ajws.org/
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site: http://www.churchworldservice.org/
Regional office: http://cwscrop.org/californiasouthwest/
2235 N. Lake Ave Suite 112
Altadena, CA 91001
Tel: (626) 296-3195
Toll Free: (888) CWS-CROP or (888) 297-2767

Doctors Without Borders
Web site: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site: http://www.globalfundforchildren.org/
1101 Fourteenth Street, NW Ste. 420
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 331-9003

Global Greengrants Fund
2840 Wilderness Place Ste.
A Boulder, CO 80301
Tel: (303) 939-9866

International Medical Corps
Web site: http://www.imcworldwide.org/
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site: http://www.theirc.org/
122 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168-1289
Tel: (212) 551-3000

Mercy Corps
Web site: http://www.mercycorps.org/
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355

Oxfam

Web site: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/
26 West Street
Boston, MA 02111
Tel: (800) 77-OXFAM or (800) 776-9326

Surgery Offers Hope to Dystonia Victims


Twelve-year-old Josh Gaskin walks to the front door and shakes a visitor’s hand. While this gesture would seem routine for most adolescents, two years ago it would have been impossible for Josh.

By the time he had reached the fourth grade, Josh’s dystonia caused his right hand to involuntarily clench into a fist so tight that he could only open it by force. His feet turned inward, requiring him to wear braces. The symptoms had forced Josh to quit his baseball and basketball teams after six years of playing, leaving him depressed and angry.

Josh’s mother, Andrea, had read about an unusual procedure that might hold hope for her son. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves placing tiny electrodes deep in the brain. The electrodes are connected by wires running internally down each side of the neck to small pulse generators implanted under the skin of the chest.

The electrical pulses disrupt the brain signals that cause involuntary movement. The procedure had been used extensively to relieve Parkinson’s disease symptoms, and had recently been found to help some dystonia patients.

Andrea was intrigued. Still, DBS involves multiple surgical procedures. At the time, few procedures had been done for dystonia patients, and only a handful of them had involved children.

“Deep inside, I knew that this was going to be for us,” she said. “My husband was more hesitant…. You’re dealing with the brain and things can happen.”

But Andrea felt strongly. “The way I looked at it, why let it get worse before I make him better. The more your body starts twisting, the harder you have to work to put it back to what it was,” she said. “I didn’t want him go through any more suffering.”

In April 2004, Josh underwent DBS surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. During the procedure, a metal halo was screwed into his skull to assure no movement. The doctor drilled a small hole in Josh’s skull and inserted the electrodes.

Josh was a awake for much of the six-hour surgery, because his doctors needed to ask him questions in order to place the electrodes most effectively. Two days after his surgery, Josh’s doctors inserted batteries into the device.

By the following day, Josh was able to play video games with his father at Times Square’s ESPN Zone. Within a month, he could walk without the foot braces. He began shooting hoops and hitting baseballs.

“I had forgotten how it felt to open my arms,” Josh said. “It felt good to go back to normal.”

Josh suffered a setback last June, when one of the leads caused a leakage of brain fluid, and the apparatus on one side of his body had to be removed. Within six months, his walking was worse than it had been before the surgery.

Last March, he returned to New York to have the device re-implanted, and has been slowly improving ever since. He can write again. He plays basketball and runs track at school. He hopes to re-join a sports league, and is practicing his skills. His speech remains slurred as it was prior to the surgery, but he hopes that it, too, will slowly improve.

Each month, Josh must visit the doctor to have his electrical settings fine tuned. He will need surgery to have his batteries replaced every three to four years.

Nevertheless, neither Josh nor his mother have any regrets. “It’s not for everybody, but for us, this surgery has been a blessing,” Andrea said. “We’ve seen a big improvement.”

Before the procedure, “I was angry, mad and sad. I didn’t know why I had [dystonia],” Josh said. “Now, I have a better outlook.”

As he recounted his story, Josh was asked about scabs on both his knees. They weren’t from surgery. He had been fooling around on his parent’s treadmill, put it on maximum and fell. Just like any other normal 12-year-old kid. — NSS

 

Wonderful


This is what happens in this week’s parsha. In Parshat Pekuday,
Moses gives the Israelites an accounting of how much gold, silver and copper
was contributed to build the mishkan (the Tabernacle that held the Ten
Commandments). This helps the Israelites to truly own the mishkan — it is their
own creation that they can now offer to God. Moses knew that doing the math
helped the Israelites feel good about their generosity.

March 8 is International Women’s Day!

The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United
States in 1909. It became International Women’s Day in 1911, when European
women joined the movement to promote and protect the equal rights of women.
Only a few days later, the famous and tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire
occurred in New York. More than 140 working girls, mostly Italian and Jewish
immigrants, were killed. This spurred women around the world to join the
movement to improve women’s working conditions, salaries and participation in
politics. Women have come a long way since those days.

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