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All the things that might have been

What happens to the road not taken? Does it wait for us to return, or does it blink out of existence? And if we do return, is it truly the same road, since we ourselves have changed?

What about us: do we divide into two at every fork, with one alternate version of ourselves taking one way and another the other? And if that is so, might we reconnect further down the path of life, or crisscross, or switch back onto the road we left untraveled?

What of the people we meet along the way? Are we destined to meet them no matter which road we follow, or do future friends and cohorts come into existence and disappear with every choice we make? Will we find our soul mates whichever path we choose, or do different choices make us different people with different souls and different soul mates?

If you’re expecting me to answer these questions, you might as well stop reading here. I have no more idea than you do, and maybe less. But I do have a story about crossing paths and hidden possibilities.

Read the whole essay here.
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Walking in Circles

As the two contenders for the job of Leader of the Free World continue to confirm our worst fears about their competence and character, it’s worth revisiting these thoughts from 2010 about how we keep ending up in the same place.

“The whole world is a narrow bridge,” taught the great Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (1772 -1810), in one of his most famous aphorisms, “but the main thing is to have no fear at all.”

According to German scientist Jan Souman, however, it seems that we have good reason to be afraid. After exhaustive research devoted to the study of walking, Dr. Souman has amassed a mountain of evidence proving that human beings possess a natural inclination to travel in circles.

Like some impious prankster, Dr. Souman took his subjects out to empty parking lots and open fields, blindfolded them, and instructed them to walk in a straight line. Some of them managed to keep to a straight course for ten or twenty paces; a few lasted for 50 or a hundred. But all of them ended up circling back toward their points of origin.

Not many of them. Not most of them. Every last one of them.

“And they have no idea,” says Dr. Souman. “They were thinking that they were walking in a straight line all the time.”

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Walking in Circles
Walking in Circles
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An Ode to Almustafa

If memory serves -- after all, it has been 32 years -- I was somewhere between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Waycross, Georgia. It was late winter, but the southern air was mild and the sun brightened the sky.

Hitchhiker’s weather, to be sure.

I was waiting at a rest stop with my thumb stuck out when a pickup towing a large camper lumbered to a halt in front of me. I climbed in and uttered my heartfelt thanks.

The driver, wearing a red flannel coat in hunter’s plaid, surprised me by identifying himself as a pastor on vacation. He asked the usual questions -- where was I headed, where was I from, why was I traveling this way -- then launched into his story.

There are two ways hitchhikers pay for their rides. One is by talking, by entertaining a driver lonely from the road and weary of recorded music or talk radio. The other is by listening, by letting drivers unburden themselves without the cost of therapy, secure in the knowledge that their disclosures will vanish into the air the moment the passenger exits the vehicle … comfort of strangers and all that.

Clergy have gotten a bad rap in recent years -- much of it their own doing. Corruption is bad enough from politicians and business executives, but we have every right to expect more from our religious leaders. The entire edifice of theology suffers from every single act of spiritual infidelity.

But there are still many sincere men of the cloth, and my benefactor appeared faithful to the integrity of his office. He saw his mission not only to minister but to shepherd his flock toward pastures sown thick with the morality and ethics of scripture, to challenge them to challenge themselves and prod them to pay closer attention to the calling of their conscience.

And sadly, like spiritual leaders from Moses until today, he had found ample cause for disappointment.

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An Ode to Almustafa
An Ode to Almustafa
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When we aren’t who we think we are

For the second time in one year, two men in Canada have discovered that they were switched at birth four decades ago. Just last week, DNA testing confirmed that Leon Swanson and David Tait, Jr., were swapped in the government-run Norway House Hospital in 1975.

Close to tears at a press conference, Mr Tait said he felt “distraught, confused and angry”. He said: “I want answers so bad. It’s going to affect us one way or the other, I know that. It’s going to be a long journey.”

Eric Robinson, a former cabinet minister in Manitoba province, told reporters: “What happened to them is criminal. Lives were stolen. You can’t describe it as anything less than that.”

A similar case was reported in Oregon back in 2009. Here are my thoughts from then, originally published in Jewish World Review.

It sounds like a movie. Nurses bring a newborn daughter back to her mother after bathing. The mother insists that she’s been given the wrong baby. The nurses, who clearly know better, dismiss her concerns.

But 56 years later, DNA testing proves that Marjorie Angell, the real mother in this real story, was right.

Kay Rene Reed and DeeAnn Angell were both born on the third of May, 1953 in eastern Oregon’s Pioneer Memorial Hospital. As babies they were switched, presumably while being given baths, and grew up to become wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Less than a year ago Kay Rene’s brother discovered an old photograph of Kay Rene in middle school. Except that it wasn’t a picture of Kay Rene; rather, the schoolgirl who could have been her twin was in fact the sister of DeeAnn.

Subsequent DNA testing proved what had already become obvious. Kay Rene wasn’t a Reed, and DeeAnn wasn’t an Angell.

“I cried,” said Kay Rene. “My life wasn’t my life.”


flat,800x800,070,fImagine waking up one morning and discovering that you were someone else. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. You have the same friends, the same family, the same job. But you also have another family and another past — a whole different identity about which you know nothing. A careless moment over which you had no control and an innocent mistake outside your knowledge conspired to leave you wondering how your whole life might have unfolded if not for that momentary twist of fate.

What would you do? What would you think? How would you feel?

If you have lived a happy and well-adjusted life, you’d probably wrestle with some inner confusion and then return to your friends and family. But if your life had been difficult, if you had endured an existence of hardships and traumas that had left you broken and bitter, how might you cry out against the cruelty of chance that had snatched away the happy life you might have had.

And what if, somehow, it had actually been your own fault?


The Sages of the Talmud teach that when a soul departs from this world, it lets out a scream that can be heard from one end of the universe to the other. Contemporary scholars have explained their meaning as follows:

Once freed from the bonds of physical existence, every soul ascends to the next world and comes before the Heavenly tribunal for judgment. Upon our arrival, each of us will witness a reenactment of his entire life on earth, as if projected upon a giant screen, with all of our good deeds and accomplishments, but also with all our carelessness and self-absorption. Recognizing the futility of either excuses or apologies, we will feel the shame and remorse of a life poorly lived, with no further chance of redemption.

Simultaneously, as if on a split-screen, a different story plays out. Here we will behold the life of a tzaddik, a truly pious individual whose every thought and deed is for others and whose efforts are directed entirely toward moral and spiritual self-perfection. The contrast between the two images will be astonishing.

As the painful exercise concludes, each of us will pose a question to the court: “I recognize my own life, but who is this tzaddik that lived so perfect a life, and why was his story projected next to mine?”

“That tzaddik,” the court replies, “is the person you could have been.”

Will sudden clarity, the ascendant soul will understand the consequences of a life lived in pursuit of physical pleasure and material goals. Perceiving that there had resided within him the potential to become someone else altogether and, realizing that it is too late to go back and relive his life, the unfortunate soul will emit a scream that can be heard from one end of the universe to the other.


04As long as we remain alive in this world, however, there is time to go back. What’s past is not necessarily past, for the Creator has programmed into his universe the extraordinary capability to go back in time and reshape what has already been done. This is teshuva — repentance or, literally, return.

The Jewish concept of repentance is not mere chest-clopping and confession.Teshuva is a process of self-transformation, of changing ourselves into the kinds of individuals incapable of ever again committing our earlier transgressions and indiscretions. Through sincere self-reflection, our genuine remorse will catapult us to new levels of spiritual and moral sensitivity. By returning to the straight path the Creator laid out before us from the moment we were born, we literally re-create ourselves and severe all connection to the errors of the past.

What’s done is now undone, and we have nothing to fear from the ultimate Day of Judgment. It is no longer our past that defines us. It is what we have made of ourselves, and what we do from this point forward, that will define our future.

The two women switched at birth have gotten on with their lives, and they have even become friends. Kay Rene introduces DeeAnn as her “swister.”

“I’m trying to move forward and look at the positive,” DeeAnn said. “You can’t look back. It just drives you crazy.”
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Between Heaven and Earth

Everyone I see should be smiling. A few of them are. Most of them aren’t, and I feel sorry for them, caught up in the distractions of earthly existence and overlooking the miracles that surround them.

Such is the human condition: the eyes betray the soul, and the heart grows deaf to its own inner voice, which vanishes into the rumble of routine that drums out the exhilaration of each new moment.

It should be easier here at the eye of the universe, and indeed it is. But easier is a relative term, and a hundred pounds might as well be a hundred tons when our muscles have atrophied from disuse. Just the same, in the absence of spiritual discipline, spirituality itself remains a cliché, a meaningless abstraction or, at best, a mere footnote in the narrative of life, an asterisk relegated to indices of the Sabbath, the Festivals, and the House of Worship.

Such an insidious lie. Such an insipid deception.

The Jewish liturgy begins each day with a series of 15 blessings acknowledging the gifts of fundamental existence and identity. How fortunate we are to have eyes that can behold the beauty of our world, limbs that can carry us to the corners of the earth, minds capable of discerning light from dark and good from evil; how reassured we are to commit ourselves to a higher purpose, to recognize that path we are meant to follow, and to trust the guiding Hand that gently steers us toward the fulfillment of our destiny; how much reason we have to rejoice that we are able to master our own passions, to summon the strength to meet failure with determination, and to discover new inspiration everyday amidst the monotony of life in the material world.

Yet still we forget. Even here in this place where heaven and earth kiss, even here at the focal point of human history, human nobility, and human aspiration. Too much light can blind even more effectively than too much darkness.

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Between Heaven and Earth
Between Heaven and Earth
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Someone is Always Watching

“They did not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”

~ Don McLean

After Hillary Clinton shot herself in both feet with her email indiscretions, after the Panama Papers and Ashley Madison and (assuming anyone remembers him) Rod Blagojevich, you’d think that Debbie Wasserman-Schultz might have gotten the memo, at least by email.

But no, she didn’t. And who knows what other revelations will be forthcoming from Wikileaks that will bring down the high and the mighty. In the meantime, the latest outing gives me a chance to revisit these thoughts from last October.

“Someone is always watching.” Movie fans will recognize this as the punchline from “Ocean’s Eleven,” a glib repartee that ultimately recoiled on Andy Garcia and drove Julia Roberts back into the arms of George Clooney. Political observers might remember it, now that former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is back (briefly) in the news, as a line the convicted politico should have uttered when he found himself the subject of state and federal investigators.

But just the opposite was true. The AP reported:

“You would think he would see his life collapsing around him,” said Chicago defense lawyer John Beal, who was in the courtroom with Blagojevich this week and noted how carefree he seemed. “But he was the center of attention and seemed to love it.”

One almost envies Mr. Blagojevich the comfort of his delusions.

At the beginning of the last century, the invention of electric lighting,telecommunication, and cinematography began to change the complexion of modern society. At the time, the leader of European Jewry, the venerable Chofetz Chaim, observed that the introduction of technologies scarcely imagined a generation before provided a lesson for any spiritually sensitive person to recognize that the Universe is not indifferent to our moral conduct.

Previously, the natural cycle of night and day imposed strict order upon human activity. Because most people in those times could not afford the limitless supplies of candles necessary to transform night into day, all activity was cut short early by the long nights of winter, and only in summer could the workday stretch late into the evening. Now, inexpensively and with the flick of a switch, the night could be expelled and the secrets of the darkness instantly revealed.

Can you say AshleyMadison?

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The Monty Hall Problem: Unlocking the Doors to Destiny

I can sleep at night again, now that I have resolved one of life’s most perplexing mysteries. All is well with the universe once more.

What is the persistent question that for so long stole my peace of mind? It is the riddle of Monty Hall and the goat behind Door Number Three.

The so-called Monty Hall problem is a counter-intuitive statistics puzzle that goes as follows: You have to choose one of three doors. Behind one you will find a car; behind each of the others, you will find a goat. You pick Door #1, hoping for the car, of course. Monty Hall, the game show host, narrows your choices by opening Door #3 to reveal a goat. Then Monty offers you a choice: you can stick with your original door or switch to Door #2.

What should you do? Simple logic suggests that there is no advantage to switching doors. With the elimination of Door #3, your odds improve from one-in-three to even-money. It shouldn’t matter whether or not you switch: either way, you will still have a 50-50 chance.

But here human logic fails. By switching doors, you increase your odds from even money to two-thirds.


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