Today marks a special anniversary: Some ten or so years ago I met one of my most influential and inspiring friends–and though we may live thousands of miles apart, my heart is closer to hers than to most people I know. It seems like we’ve been through it all together, the highs, the lows–the times we’ve loved each other, the times we’ve hated each other, the many times in between. Of all the people I know, she is the strongest, most persevering, most courageous–and her friendship means the world to me.
Mostly related by email, our time together is full of thoughtful conversations and intense reflections–analyses of the goings-on of life, in-depth discussions on topics as numerous as the stars. The birth of our friendship was the birth of a new soul, enjoined to the physical world not by blood or bone, but by the wires and Internet waves that have tied us together for so many impossibly wondrous years.
Today marks the birth of a new relationship–a reflexive relation I hope will provide as much for this blog as her friendship has provided me.
I read this week’s teaching for the first time more than a month ago–and I knew I’d loathe the moment I got to it. When the week opened at a conference in DC and continued with a maddening rush to pack my room and move on campus, procrastination came easily.
But as Hillel might remind us, “If not know, when?”
So anxiously I plow forward. One last teaching to end them all.
I recently read David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus, a wildly imaginative and lyrical look at the intuition and origination of one of math’s most recognizable elements. I was delighted as he described the wondrous experience of seeing mathematical functions in everyday life (an experience I’m prone to myself), and I was lulled into a certain sense of dualistic comfort when he uncovered the natural yet unexpected partnership between differentiation and integration, the two processes wholly defining the calculus.
While I read today’s teaching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Berlinski’s musical prose, of the unambiguous manner in which he related unassuming but intimately connected ideas–which is, as you’ll soon see, precisely the challenge presented today.
For the last three year’s it’s been tradition to read a chapter of the Pirkei Avot–the Jewish Ethics of the Fathers–every summer. Except last summer I never finished the third book. And this summer I haven’t touched any of them.
Unfinished business delights no one, and I’m fond of tradition, so with these last four weeks of summer, I’m returning to the Pirkei Avot and bringing it to completion.
For a few Tuesdays last semester a Chabad rabbi joined with a few of N.C. State’s Hillel students and spoke with us about issues in contemporary Judaism. Not to be confused with contemporary Jewish issues such as Israel, people leaving the faith, and the degradation of traditions, he instead led us through discussions about the modern significance of Yom Kippur, suffering, and free will.
It’s obvious, then, why I thought of him when I read today’s teaching.
When the world didn’t end on Friday, I thought I’d post a revelatory message on Saturday. Instead, I got carried away applying for a scholarship and lost track of time. So, I figured, let’s just read the next lesson of the Pirkei Avot and post it promptly on Sunday. Well, as I decided to finish said application this evening and took something of a nap earlier in the afternoon, time has once more gotten away with me. Regardless, learning is learning no matter what time it happens at (although, arguably, midnight learning is best left for Shavuot).
One of my first and favorite math teachers used to say it’s not about the “x,” it’s about the “y.” I came to a similar assumption last week, whether I articulated it or not, when I began looking at the Pirkei Avot again: It’s something I learned repeatedly in my political theory course, that it doesn’t matter who tells us something or whether it’s true or wise, but that before we accept it, we consider it critically.
Tonight begins Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, the commemoration of the rededication of the Temple hundreds of years ago. Normally I would light candles and celebrate with my family, but tonight that’s impossible: I’m still on campus, hung between finals, and candle-lighting isn’t exactly allowed in the dorms. (I’ve got a friend bringing me his lighter, and then I’ll at least light the candles outside.)
Since it’s been a long time since I’ve last lit any candles, and since it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about the Pirkei Avot, I figured tonight would be the prime time to reprise both.
An infinite number of finite moments ago, it was the end of October and I was sitting here, on the other side of your computer screen, writing about the momentous month ahead of us: November. Somehow it’s now December and November is an infinite number of finite moments ago and it feels like I haven’t said a word since.
In a word, it’s been busy–possibly even infinitely busy.
Should I begin at the beginning? I promise, it won’t take me forever.