This post is a loving tribute to Unsong, an amazing novel of kabbalistic magic, theodicy, and Biblical whale puns by Scott Alexander. The apocalyptic conclusion of Unsong is set for the evening of May 14th in both our universe and its own. This is not a coincidence – our own world may end up destroyed as well as Scott rearranges the higher planes of creation. If you have only two days left until the end of the world, you should spend them reading Unsong.
Speaking of Biblical things that aren’t coincidences, my life’s path has been predicted with remarkable precision by the Biblical story of Jacob.
The name “Jacob” comes directly from the Hebrew word for “heel”, and indeed, though I applied to many schools in the US, I became a Tar Heel. Both the patriarch and I lived in the city of Be’er Sheba before embarking on our travels. In the Torah, Jacob climbs a hill and realizes “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.“ After leaving Be’er Sheba I arrived at Chapel Hill, an awesome place whose official motto is “The Southern Part of Heaven“.
I already wrote about how both us Jacobs, while working in a foreign land, dealt with a choice between two romantic partners. People in modern times think that they invented non-traditional relationship structures and come up with complex terminology to describe them. For example, “hierarchical polyamory”, or “primary consensual nonmonogamy”. Those two mean the same thing: being committed to loving a single person above all others while maintaining open sexual relationships with other people. With two concubines and a second wife in addition to Rachel, Jacob invented “hierarchical polyamory” more than 3,500 years ago.
In addition to his birth name, Jacob also earned the name “Israel” later in life. I was born in Russia, and earned the right to call myself an Israeli when my family immigrated to Rehovot. Our relatives who chose the US over Israel initially arrived in Rochester, NY. Of course, it turned out that Rochester is a twin city of Rehovot. In the Torah, “Rehovot” means “a broad place”, and in modern Hebrew it means “street” or “way”. In New York City, I now live on Broadway.
This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.
Although Jacob’s story is described in the Book of Genesis, my overall narrative as a double immigrant (Russia to Israel to New York) is foretold in the Book of Numbers. Numbers tells of two generations’ journey towards the promised land. When I arrived in New York (a place analogous to Israel for kabbalistic reasons and not just because it’s loud, crowded and full of Jews), I noticed stories from the Book of Numbers everywhere around me.
Numbers 19:1 – Tell the People of Israel to get a red cow, a healthy specimen, ritually clean, that has never been in harness.
“Healthy red cow” obviously refers to the bronze bull, a symbol of Wall Street and New York City.
Numbers 13:33 – And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, who come of the giants.
You don’t need to be a learned rabbi to figure out that this passage is about the New York Giants.
Like hierarchical polyamory, another invention of American liberals that is older than they realize are sanctuary cities, of which New York is an epitome. This idea comes from Numbers as well,
Numbers 35:11: Then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you…
Finally, Numbers 22-24 tells the cautionary tale of a wicked man (Bil’am), his misguided ruler (Balak) and his ass. Remarkably, all three names and all three characters are combined in a single New Yorker: mayor Bill de Blasio.
The Book of Numbers concludes with Jacob’s sons gazing west at the promised land on the other side of the Jordan River. Two years ago I lived in LIC, by the Jackson Avenue subway, looking west at Manhattan over the river. I couldn’t fight the symbolism of the Book of Numbers all around me, so I started writing Put A Number On It.
My family name is Falkovich, which stems from “Falk”, the German word for “falcon”. Falcons are mentioned only twice in the Bible.
The first is Deuteronomy 14: 12 But these are they of which ye shall not eat: the eagle, and the hawk, and the osprey, 13 and the glede, and the falcon, and the kite after its kind.
The hidden meaning of this verse is: don’t eat me.
The second occurrence is much more interesting. Job 28 is a remarkable chapter, an almost non-sequitur interlude in the middle of one of the Bible’s most dramatic scenes – Job’s remonstration with God. Job 28 contrasts the pursuit of riches with the pursuit of wisdom. Gold and gems are hidden deep underground, and yet men go to great lengths to obtain them:
9 “Man puts his hand to the flinty rock,
and overturns mountains by the roots.
10 He cuts out channels in the rocks,
and his eye sees every precious thing.
Although wisdom is more precious than gold, men do not work as hard to seek it.
My name is mentioned in relation to the riches under the earth:
5 As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6 Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and it has dust of gold.
7 That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
A falcon does not see the gold and gems. Falkovich is one who is not distracted from the pursuit of wisdom by the pursuit of riches. My parents are both scientists and my brother is starting on the same path.
Admittedly, getting an MBA and working in finance is not a very Falkovich way of life on my part. I atone by writing this blog: I hope it offers my readers the occasional nugget of wisdom, and I pay to keep it free of charge and free of ads.
Unsong explores many kabbalistic interpretations of New York City, but it neglects the most sinister name: The Big Apple.
Scott talks about the deep connection between apples and knowledge, but we can get a lot more specific than that. “Apple” doesn’t just symbolize knowledge, it symbolizes forbidden knowledge pursued by a woman through a snake that leads to the downfall of mankind.
In the Torah, snakes and worms are often called by the same name, רֶמֶשׂ, which means “creeper“. My fiancee came to New York City to pursue knowledge, specifically a PhD in biology. She performs CRISPR editing on worm genes.
I hope that turns out OK.
If anyone wants to hang out before the world ends, I’ll be at the Unsong wrap party in New York City. Come hang out and share your kabbalistic story.