To Life, L’Chaim — revisited

The Hebrew toast “L’Chaim–to life”  is known to many from the Broadway show Fiddler On the Roof.  While having said it innumerable times during my life, I actually began to think about it in a new light.

It is interesting that the toast is “to life” and not “to a long life”, “a happy life”, “a successful life”, “a content life”, “a fulfilled life” etc., etc.   Why is that?  Did Jews not want those more favorable qualifiers for their lives? Of course not.  So why just “to life”?

Perhaps it has to do with acceptance rather than wishful thinking. Perhaps it reflects the group memory of persecution, destruction, harassment and genocide.  Yet despite all of this, life is felt to be a divine gift.

Perhaps it is a recognition that the bad times are opportunities for growth and transformation.  Perhaps it is an understanding that this “human experiment” is supposed to be difficult.  The mystics understood this.  The rest of us struggle with it on a daily basis.

So by simply stating, “l’chaim, to life”, we acknowledge the good with the bad,  the happy with the sad, all our triumphs and failures.  It is the entire package  called life that we celebrate when we toast each other. It is about pure acceptance and gratitude.

Embracing The Paradox of Joy & Suffering– Being Present in the Moment

My last posting has led me to continue to ponder the mystery– how do we live our lives in the face of all the suffering we see around us and which we experience in our lives?  How do we survive on the edge of chaos?

The irony is this– does this fear of the unknown diminish our ability to enjoy the blessings in our lives?  How do we accept the gifts of life and love that surround us while being in fear of the suffering that awaits us?  Those of us immersed in fear and negativity find our minds so overwhelmed that we pass beauty without seeing it.  We overlook gifts of gentleness and peace.

We are caught in a vortex of thoughts and feelings.  Many of us find ourselves paralyzed by the fear. We actually fear that we will not find our way out. This is a self-perpetuating cycle of suffering.  Not only are we suffering now for what has not occurred but our minds can’t function clearly enough to find solutions to our problems.

The answer lies in living within the now, the present moment.  We need to force ourselves to step out of our minds.  Here is the paradox–In order to make progress, to deal with our problems we must forget about them—at least for the moment.  By doing so we will learn to clear the chaos that produces anxiety and confused thinking.  Clearning our minds will actually allow them to function better.

Once again I find myself advocating for the practice of meditation.  It is the mechanism for developing our awareness.  It is training for being present in the moment.  It is the antidote for our mind’s internal battle. It reboots our minds.  It is an instant vacation.  It allows us to step out of the vortex of suffering and find peace.

When our minds return to our usual state of consciousness,  we may find  gifts of love and beauty previously  hidden in plain sight  are now visible. We may be shocked by how blinded we were to their presence.

And we will have a new perspective, a renewed confidence that we will be able to handle what comes our way. And this attitude will allow us to do just that.

Post – Sandy Holiday Party & Kabbalistic Themes

The staff from my surgicenter are getting together tonite for a belated holiday party.  As usual I will be asked to say a few words to the staff and their partners who will be there.  I hope that those in attendance will have had something to drink before I begin.  I don’t dislike offering an impromptu toast or speech but I know I will sound better if they have. 

I will keep it light.  I will offer my deepest appreciation for all their extraordinary  efforts during the storm, and the  loss of power and chaos that ensued. I will ask that while we are enjoying ourselves and celebrating our renewal that we not forget our friends and neighbors in the Garden State who are still suffeirng badly.  I will point out that the hotel in which we are standing was closed for many weeks because of damage. 

But  Kabbalistic themes are never far from my thoughts.   They deal with creation and destruction.  They speak of the myth of creation from the perspectives of the mystics who read the sacred writings with their own eyes.  They speak of the multiple universes that God created and destroyed before deciding that this one was “good”.  They write of the destruction of this universe soon after it was formed, of the tzimtzum, the chaos that followed when the divine energy could not be contained by matter and the vessels shattered.  Of the hidden sparks of divinity that surround us, are us.  Of the need to assist in the repair of this world.  Of our role in the process  by which tikkun operates.  Fixing, repairing, search and rescue, liberating holy sparks that lay covered by debris.  The debris is us, the physical world that can alternate between beauty and horrific ugliness.  Can be find the holy sparks amidst tragedy?  Can we ever raise a glass in celebration when the lifeless bodies of the innocent children of New Port have so recently re-joined the earth? 

All this is way too heavy for a holiday party. 

But destruction and renewal are a part of all of our lindividual ives, as well as the universe itself.  But finding joy amidst chaos is a human quality as well.   In our lives we bounce between joy and sadness. We are manic-depressives, all of us. Many of us have difficulty getting unstuck when the darkness is so overwhelming.  But we need to recognize this paradox, this ultimate mystery.

 In times of joy we shatter the glass to remind ourselves of destruction.  But we cannot allow joyous times to pass unappreciated.  They are rare and precious and they are to be acknowledged. 

When in the midst of the chaos we need to raise the vessel we have fixed  and  say “L’Chaim”– to life.

THE BEAST WITHIN — More Evidence of Our Nasty Behavior

Chimpatologist Jane Goodall knows us better that we know ourselves.  In her article in the Wall Street Journal she easily dispatches those “experts” who portray us, homo sapiens, as gentle beings, corrupted by the forces of society into exhibiting the brutality and aggression which we so often manifest. Jane knows our genetic heritage and in her studies finds that the roots of aggression in our simian ancestors is all too obvious.

She points to actual research with male chimps which demonstrates rather brutal alpha male treatments of lesser chimps.  She also documents killing of weakened alpha males as well as preventive killing of potential tribal rivals. Comparions with primitive human warfare are astounding. Marching silently in the jungles, attacking and killing vulnerable chimps from outside their group, acquiring their territory, their resources as well as potential female breeding partners. 

What makes humans different from chimps is not our propensity for war and violence but our ability to make peace.  In order to avoid bloodshed we have developed protocols to diminish the potential for war.  This works….sometimes.  Her point is well taken.  Instead of fantasizing about an idyllic pre-societal nature, we should be realistic about who we are.  And, hopefully, work towards promoting what is positive. See article–




The tribal gene is the source of much of collective human behavior.  We may certainly decry acts of savagery, genocide and other atrocities committed by groups of our fellow human beings against other groups.  But is it possible to alter such behavior?  In his NYTimes piece philosopher Stephen T. Asma discusses the possibilities and essentially says “no!”. 

He discusses the philosophical notion of such utilitarian philosophers as Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer who believe it is possible to expand the tribal attitude to include all of humanity as well as the entire biosphere of life on this planet.  His arguments are convincing.  He refers to neurobiological studies as well as common sense.  We just are closer to those we regard as family and friends.  We do understand that there are differences between an inner circle to which we have history and affection and those who exist, for us, in ever expanding orbits of emotional distance from us.  Empathy, he points out, is not a concept but a natural biological event with a neurobiochemical basis.  He further explains that preferential treatment, nepotism, loyalty are not just choices but inbred human behaviors.  He also refers to the concept of “eudaimonia”, the good life that the psychology of happiness attempts to describe, as requiring a small circle of loved-ones who represent powerful ties.  The are not, he takes note, Facebook friends or distant strangers.  Would it be “better” if we could embrace all of humanity as if they were truly family?  Asma agrees.  But is it realistic? Will it happen? Unfortunately not.

Agreeing With An Emanuel? On End Of Life Issues… Perhaps

Never thought I would agree with what any of the Emanuel brothers— Rahm, Ari or Ezekiel– would write.  But I may have some common ground with brother Zeke (Ezekiel).  A professor at University of Pennsylvania, a trained oncologist and politically to the left of Trotsky, he was influential in formulating much of the Obamacare platform.  But his opinion in the NYTimes is worth considering.  He writes about the issue of physician-assisted suicide and associated issues. He attempts to dispel four myths associated with the topic.

First “pain”.  He points out that patients who desire euthanasia (in which a doctor administers a lethal drug) or physician-assisted suicide (in which the patient himself takes the lethal drug prescribed by the physician) tend not to be motivated by pain.  His claim is that the vast majority seek such an end not because of physical pain but psychological pain.  These individuals, he believes, should be offered “counselling and caring”, but not be considered for either of the above.  This sounds rather naive to me.  Depression associated with pain and the dying process cannot be treated with drugs or therapy.  It is often a natural reaction to the suffering that occurs at the end of life.  It is not a “disease” to be treated but a reality. Of course they should be utilized if possible.  I doubt very much they will alleviate the true suffering that is both physical and mental. So suffering will remain regardless of the cause.

Secondly, “mass appeal” which implies that assisted suicide will improve the end of life for everyone.  He points out that in Oregon in which only .2% of dying patients chose this means of dying and in the Netherlands fewer than 3% did.  His left leaning politics comes raging through when he states “well-off, well-educated people, typically suffering from cancer, who are used to controlling everything in their lives–the top .2%  And who are the people most lifely to be abused if assisted suicide is legalized?  The poor, poorly educated, dying patients who pose a burden on their relatives.”  Are you for real, Zeke?  How sanctimonious can you get.  Do you really think “rich” people will choose assisted-suicide just because they like to “control” everything?  Do your honestly believe poor people will be led to slaughter because they are a “burden” on their relatives.  Come on, dude.  You are stereotyping in the worst, most obnoxious way.

A “good death”.  He points to those rare situations in which the process fails.  Assisted-suicide is not perfect, nothing is, but this is a lame attack on the system itself.  The only statement he makes that makes sense is his last paragraph in which he emphasizes that we need to improve the care of the dying.  Palliative and hospice care should reduce the need for physician-assisted suicide.  But his arguments against it are rather weak. I would not dismiss the option for those who seek it.

Facilitating the inevitable when there is unremitting suffering (physical or mental) need not justify itself to anyone.

Anthropology / Aerobics & Our Big Brains

Who knew?

Our big brains evolved not because we were great thinkers, but great runners.  The article in the NYTimes adds an interesting twist to the question of how we evolved from our primate ancestors.  My interest in anthropology is no more unusual than that of metaphysics in general—what is the nature of reality, or who we are and how we got here.

Our australopithecine ancestors (Google ” Lucy”  for further info) found themselves in a progressively changing environment. Tectonic shifts in the African continent, climate change resulted in diminishing jungles.  Their protective trees gave way to open savannas with grasslands.  They rose up on two legs  to survey their landscape.  That position enabled them to look at their surroundings, utilize both hands for carrying objects and tool making, and to move relatively long distances in open savannas in order to “run down”  and consume swifter prey.  This ability to do long distance jogging provided them with the protein infusion, animal protein (sorry to our vegan friends) that promoted brain development.

Our less simian ancestors that came after “Lucy”  such as  homo habilis and  homo erectus evoled this larger brain capacity.  But protein was needed to fuel the metabolically active central nervous system characteristic of our lineage and our ancestry.

This process of natural selection would further promote bipedalism, long- distance movement and associated brain development.

This theory fits in well with recent studies demonstrating neurogenesis in adults by virtue of aerobic exercise. In all likelihood it was the younger australopithecines  who did the long distance running/hunting.  Excessive training was unnecessary.  Running was for day to day survival not gold medals. But just perhaps the secondary gain of all this aerobics was the enlargement and improved function of our cerebral cortex.

Of course modern research has demonstrated that excessive aerobics over a period of time is not only not conducive to longevity, but quite the opposite, it is associated with reduced life spans. So once again the “secret” to life is moderation.  Exercise was and is important to our collective and individual health.  Extreme exercise is not.  Our ancestors were successful joggers, not marathon winners.