Necessary Stories: Lands End

"The Land of Milk and Honey looks as slender as if it’s been on Atkins. They’ve had to move with the climate. But at least God’s country is finally at peace."

Illustration (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Illustration (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
“MAN, THIS IS THE LIFE!” I say, as I lean back in my empyreanite chair and stretch my legs and arms out as far as they can go.
My Talmud is open in front of me, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” is wafting through the Elysian yeshiva, and a cool, balmy breeze wafts through the ether.
My eternal study buddy, Shimon Bar- Kappara, eyes me from over the top of the large volume of Tractate Sotah that he’s holding up in front of him so as to hide the smaller volume he’s really reading.
“I hate to break this to you,” he says. “But you are neither a man, nor do you have a life.”
“Don’t be such a cynic,” I sigh.
“Although I do miss a good cup of really strong Turkish coffee. Nectar just doesn’t do it for me.”
Bar-Kappara’s eyes swing left, then right. He reaches into his robe, pulls out a small jar, and pushes it toward me.
“The misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool,” he whispers. “But the mind must have sustenance. Here, something special from down below.”
I examine the label. “Orkney Islands Olives? Since when are there olive trees in the far north of Scotland?”
“You’re just like all the newbies,” my study partner laughs. “So excited that years go by before you remember to look down to earth.”
I look down.
“Oh my,” I say. Someone changes the music. It’s Dvorak’s Symphony Number Nine, “The New World.”
I clear my throat. “The Holy Land,” I point. “It’s… it’s…”
“Lost weight?” Bar-Kappara suggests.
Indeed, the Land of Milk and Honey looks as slender as if it’s been on Atkins. The Mediterranean’s waves lap the foothills of the central highlands and the former gas station at Sha’ar Hagai is now a beachside restaurant. And the once-green hills of Judea and Samaria are now as parched and treeless as Arabia’s Mt. Arafat.
I look at the jar of olives. Bar-Kappara nods.
“The erstwhile Land of Milk and Honey is much too dry and hot for olives, not to mention figs and grape vines,” he laments.
“They’ve had to move with the climate. But at least God’s country is finally at peace.”
“I would think that with less real estate to fight over that all hell would break loose.”
“Fortunately,” says my always-ironic partner, “both the Jews and the Palestinians were blessed with far-sighted leaders. At their final summit following the crisis summer of 2011, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas signed an agreement in which they agreed to move their respective peoples to Finland and to fight for what remained of the taiga.”
Before we see him, we hear the heavy footsteps of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, our study proctor. Bar-Kappara grabs the jar of olives, stuffs it into a pocket, and inserts his nose deep into his book.
“Watzman! Where’s Watzman?” Hanasi thunders, looking this way and that as he pushes aside heavenly scholars, right and left.
“Here. In my usual spot,” I say meekly.
He stomps his way over and eyes me soberly from head to foot.
“Watzman,” he rumbles. “We have a problem. Haven’t I always taught you ‘Be as scrupulous about the lightest command as about the weightiest, for no man knoweth the result of his actions?’ We might need to send you for some serious sin-purging. When I say serious, I mean in the millennia time frame.”
I shudder in horror. “Not to the heavenly disco party!” I wail.
“Not to that awful den of boom-boom-boom music, with the strobe lights that make it impossible to read a sentence, much less a convoluted Talmudic argument. What have I done? I repented all my sins when I came here!”
“It seems,” Hanasi says sternly, “that there was one you forgot to mention. Have you looked down to earth lately?”
“Just did,” I said defensively.
“So you know what’s up there. Global warming. Widespread destruction of ecosystems. Mass migrations of whole peoples with all the deadly and bloody consequences of population displacement. And all because humankind couldn’t control its ravenous consumption of fossil fuels. Air-conditioners. More and more ungulate flesh for its hamburgers and kebabs. And worst of all, cars, cars, cars. This infernal urge to leave home and burn gas by driving around the countryside every summer.”
Bar-Kappara chants in a studious singsong, swaying back and forth as he recites: “Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself.”
“Exactly,” Hanasi says approvingly. Then he narrows his eyes and looks at Bar-Kappara suspiciously. “Did I say that?”
Bar-Kappara chants on: “Man is the most intelligent of the animals – and the most silly.”
“Just what are you implying?” Hanasi explodes.
“Just that we’re all in the same pot,” Bar-Kappara says. “And even heaven is heating up.”
“Don’t confuse me!” Hanasi roars. “I’ve come to tell Watzman that he must atone for the end of the world as we knew it, and in particular for the destruction of the Land of the Covenant!”
“Me?” I say incredulously. “You’re blaming everything on me? The expansion of the deserts? The tropical storms as powerful as anything on Jupiter? The glacial-melt water floods in Pakistan and India? The greening of Greenland? The collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet? The bankruptcy of the ski resort on Mt.Hermon? That’s all my fault?”
“It’s an uncomfortable truth.”
“Hey,” I object. “Global warming is a long-term process. It started before I was born. You can’t blame it on a single person.”
“A typical product of the I’m OK-you’re OK age. No personal responsibility,” the rabbi says. “Now listen: climates are chaotic systems.There’s always a specific tipping point. And the Celestial Climate Study Group has determined that the carbon that sent the earth plummeting off the cliff of climate disaster was that emitted by the little sky-blue Hyundai you rented the week of August 15, 2010, for a romantic Galilean vacation with your wife.”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “I live all my life without a car and then you blame me for a week’s rental? On a vacation we spent at a vegetarian, ecologically conscious moshav? And I should mention that the world was plenty hot already then. So hot we couldn’t even hike.”
“Exactly,” Hanasi says, pulling out a sheaf of papers. “You should have considered three things, and you wouldn’t have fallen into sin: remember that there is above thee an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a record of all your actions. Instead of hiking you drove from one air-conditioned winery to another to taste Chardonnays and Merlots.”
He points down. “If you’d gone on a hike that Tuesday, none of this would have happened.”
To the jarring dissonances of Schoenberg’s first string quartet, my partner chants: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
“For heaven’s sake, Kappara, whose side are you on?” “This doesn’t sound like anything I ever taught,” Hanasi says sternly. He grabs Bar-Kappara’s volume of Talmud and yanks it away, revealing a pile of the leather-bound tomes beneath.
“Apikoros!” he shouts. “Epicurean!” “Well, this one’s Epicurus. And this is Aristotle, and that one is Epictetus, and here’s Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations,’” says Bar- Kappara. “You know Marcus Aurelius. He was a king in Jerusalem.…”
“Now listen here,” I say, standing up and looking Hanasi in the eye. “When I was alive I had a right to live, and that included taking a modest four-day vacation with my wife. We didn’t jet to Switzerland or Peru, we rented a car with very good mileage per gallon. We tasted some wine. We went to the pool. We watched some movies on my laptop. You want to lock someone up in a nightclub for destroying the earth? Go after the industrialists and the Republicans. I’ll just warn you that some of them actually like loud music and flashing lights.”
“Oh them,” Rabbi Yehuda says dismissively. “I need to hold my own people to higher standards.”
“How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure,” Bar-Kappara quotes. “Your problem is that you’re always looking for someone to blame.”
“The problem with Stoics,” says Rabbi Yehuda, “is that they don’t blame anyone. They just let the world follow its course. Just look down there to see where that led us. With the High Holidays approaching, we need to take personal responsibility, and to think before we act.”
“You said so, I didn’t,” says Bar-Kappara. “Thinking is good. But, still, for all his thinking, Aurelius’s empire pretty much disintegrated soon after he died."
The rabbi shakes his head. “Once undone, no wisdom, neither Jewish nor Greek, can restore the seas and the deserts to their proper places.”
Bar-Kappara draws the jar from his pocket.
“At least,” he says, “we can munch on Orkney Islands olives. Enjoy one, while you can.”
Haim Watzman is the author of ‘Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel’ and ‘A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley.’ He blogs at