On Confluences


The photo (not taken by me) shows the Zagyva flowing into the Tisza in Szolnok. As it happens, my flat will be near the bank of the Zagyva, so I will get to know this river well.

There’s strength in knowing one’s rivers: where they come from and where they go, what towns lie on them, what fish live in them, and what their histories are. A river starts on a mountain or in a body of water; it ends in another waterway (sea, river, or lake) or breaks into two or more. No river comes from nowhere; like humans, they all have their origins and endings. (In other ways, they are quite unlike humans, or they put humans to the test; thus the godly but mortal Achilles could not outrace the river Scamander and needed the help of the gods.)

The Zagyva begins near Salgótarján in Nógrád county (a place I hope to visit) and flows south-southeast, ending in Szolnok, where it joins with the Tisza. The Tisza begins near Rakhiv, Ukraine, and courses southwest and then south, ultimately flowing into the Danube near Novi Slankamen, Serbia. The Danube, the second-longest river in Europe (after the Volga), starts out in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest of Germany, and passes through or along ten countries before emptying into the Black Sea. In Hungary, it flows south, but its overall path is east-southeastward. Here is a river map of Hungary.

This is probably my last blog post in New York City (for a long time, anyway). This afternoon I return the modem; that means my only internet access (until Dallas and then Hungary) will be by phone. I will not blog by phone; I have tried it before and don’t enjoy it. I’ll wait until that little tributary flows into the larger stream of laptop with Wifi connection.

On Monday I led a philosophy roundtable on the subject of human dignity. It marks the end of my leadership of the series, which began in 2012. I hope that others will continue it. I think about the association with Columbia Secondary School and the surprising forms it took; when I began working there, I had no idea that I would be teaching philosophy, starting a roundtable tradition, and helping my students found a journal. Even less did I know about the collegial relations I would build and the things I would learn from others.

But humans are not rivers. In saying this, I’m being partly silly but also serious. A river does not decide its course, moment by moment; to some extent, humans do. Rivers do not react emotionally to events; yes, they respond to forces, but only in accordance with physical laws. That’s why Psalm 114 has such awe and surprise:

מַה-לְּךָ הַיָּם, כִּי תָנוּס; הַיַּרְדֵּן, תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר.

“What is with you, sea, that you flee? And you, Jordan, that you turn backward?”

Still, it’s tempting to see a soul in a river: a light soul, a brooding soul, a pained soul, a soul filled with laughter and light and sometimes litter. It’s likewise tempting to think of life as water in motion, water filled with fish of many colors, water that passes through fields and towns and lives, water that breaks and comes together. It’s good to give in to this temptation at times. There are songs in it.

To what extent humans have free will, to what extent they exist and act beyond physical laws, I don’t know; it seems an unanswerable question. But our meetings and partings seem as unpredictable–and as catalytic–as anything in our lives. Who knows who will be around the corner; who knows what junctions lie ahead; who knows how they will shape and influence us. In this light, on a good day, even losses are bearable. Even they leave something with us. We gather up our many streams (sort of like a river, but not really) and take them into the new place, whose real rivers meet with the imagination and then break away again. In my new home, I will get my feet and soul wet.

I leave off with Franz Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” performed by Elly Ameling and Irwin Gage. (Speaking of confluence, see Benjamin Ivry’s article about Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92.)


Image: “The Zagyva meets the Tisza River in Szolnok” (courtesy of Wikipedia).

I changed two words in this piece after posting it. One of my upcoming pieces will be about revision.

A Cedar Rule of Friendship


Friendship has become like plastic wrap: stretchable over everything, yet easily poked and ripped. The word has become thin in meaning; in a Facebook context, a “friend” may be someone we’ve never met, have met but may never get to know, or have known for years. With a few clicks, you can “unfriend” someone; friendship is not a commitment but a “status.”

All of this has been said before, by many people. I am about to propose a cedar rule that can make friendship more meaningful, no matter what its depth or context. It’s difficult to follow, but it seems good as an aspiration. (I call it a “cedar rule” rather than a “golden rule” because cedar suggests durability and majesty. It’s one of the most vivid symbols in the Hebrew Bible. (See Psalm 92 and Ezekiel 31, for instance.)

The cedar rule is this: Never say anything about your friend that you are unwilling to tell him or her directly. Moreover, avoid speaking disparagingly about anyone, friend or not.

This goes for a stranger, a best friend, and anyone in between. A friend of any kind or level deserves this dignity.

I am using the pronoun “you”  not to be preachy but rather to avoid the awkwardness of “one,” the insularity of “I,” and the groupiness of “we.” Pronouns can be a pain (and I would say this to their face).

Now, some would object: What’s the harm in talking about my friend to someone removed from the situation? There’s no harm, if this conversation prepares you to speak directly with the friend. But if it replaces such conversation, it’s a way of keeping the friend in the dark about your thoughts and needs (specifically regarding the friendship).

If you are annoyed with a friend’s habits (of being late, of texting too much, of showing off, of not replying to an email, of putting people down), then the question becomes: How important is this person to me? If important, there are two choices: put up with the habits, or address them directly. Talking about them to someone else is not fair; it does not give the friend a chance to respond. The friend may think you’re fine with it all.

In addition, disparaging talk (even with the person’s knowledge) does damage and should be avoided in general. This idea is a bit harder to take; my own response would be, “so, am I supposed to pretend I just love everyone, that everyone is great, that there are no human flaws in the world? Must I avoid saying anything about Trump, then?”

No–there is a difference between criticism and disparagement. It’s possible to object to a person’s actions–frankly and fully, laying your cards on the table–without putting the person down or claiming superiority. Public figures are automatically subject to criticism because of their responsibility to the public; but even there, the criticism can hold to standards.

Jewish law forbids “lashon hara“–the evil tongue–defined as speech that says something negative about a person, is not intended to correct the situation, and is true. It’s the second quality here–speech not intended to correct the situation–that sets “lashon hara” apart from helpful criticism.

So when criticizing, be specific, do away with the sneer, acknowledge your own limitations, and allow the person to respond to your complaint. In all cases seek the good. Aristotle saw the best friendship as the kind based in good will (eunoia). While he considered it rare (and while he was probably right), its underlying principle can serve as a general guide.

The two parts of this rule depend on each other. To treat a friend justly, you must have a foundation of just speech in general–that is, speech that provides an opening for the good. With people in general, it is sufficient to avoid putdowns and hurtful gossip. With friends, you go one step further by saying directly to them whatever you would say about them, including the most thoughtful and helpful criticism in the world.

Of course there are qualifications to this, particularly when it comes to praise. Sometimes direct praise can become too much for the recipient; indirection may be kinder (and will rarely cause harm). But even there, it’s worth asking: Am I willing to say this directly to the person, and if not, why not? Sometimes people have little idea how much they are respected and appreciated; it would help them to know. Or sometimes the excessive gush has other, less honorable, causes; in that case it may be worth holding back a little, even from the wide world with its vast indifferent ears.

If the cedar rule were applied to all friendships–light or serious, distant or close, online or offline–how much the discourse would improve! Not only would people speak more kindly, but when they had an issue with someone, they would approach the person directly. What trust and good work this would engender. This doesn’t require intimacy or stiff formality; all it requires is care with humans and words. “All” it requires! This may be the greatest human challenge: to treat words and humans with care.


I took the photo in Central Park a few weeks ago.

I edited and added to this piece after posting it.