Menu   

Posts by Rabbi David Wolpe

The First Time


This week records something remarkable in the Torah. Sarah and Abraham both die and for the first time in Jewish history, there is a next generation. The admonition we read in the Shema – “And you shall teach it to your children” (Deut. 11:9) – is the building block of the future. Isaac in that special sense has a harder task than Abraham, because it is often harder to continue than to begin. After all, Abraham and Sarah brought something new in the world following the word of God; Isaac must first follow the word of Abraham and Sarah. Together…

Read this post

An Angel Teaches Politics


It may be that the most important biblical passage for our time is found in the book of Joshua: “…he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked him, ‘Are you one of us or of our enemies?’ He replied, ‘No! I am captain of the Lord’s host.’’ (Joshua 5:13,14). “No!” The angel does not accept Joshua’s categories. Not everyone must be on one side or another; God has no team. In every group, there is some justice, some wisdom, some goodness. Certainly, there are things to oppose…

Read this post

Become Yourself


Have we grown into the person we were meant to be? Have we realized our potential or betrayed it? The story is told of the renowned scholar, Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, that when young, he was an indifferent student. One day, he decided to abandon his studies and go to a trade school instead. He announced his decision to his parents, who reluctantly acquiesced. That night, the young man had a dream. In it, he saw an angel holding a stack of beautiful books. “Whose books are those?” he asked the angel. “They are yours,” was the answer, “if you…

Read this post

Naked


When God calls in the garden, Adam explains, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” The midrash comments: “naked of mitzvot.” The theme of being stripped bare is common in modern art. The sculptures of Giacometti, the writings of Kafka, and Coetzee’s Michael K. all depict people reduced to the essence, and they are afraid. We cover ourselves with possessions, with titles, with connections and refinements to help us feel safe. We fear being naked, not in the physical sense, but in the metaphysical sense — denuded of all the things that protect us from the vagaries…

Read this post

Ladders


In Jacob’s dream, why do the angels who ascend and descend need ladders? Aren’t angels supposed to be able to fly? The angels teach us that realizing dreams requires a step-by-step approach. While they take a moment to conceive, dreams demand effort and time to achieve. Ascent is not easy. As the Kotzker Rebbe said, “there is nothing straighter than a slanting ladder.” Stand a ladder upright and it falls. The sloping climb of gradualism best serves even the noblest of dreams. Ladders point in both directions. Rabbi Jose ben Halafta was once asked what God has been doing since…

Read this post

The Writer, The Dog, and The Lesson


In his essay on Sir Walter Scott, C.S. Lewis paints a remarkable picture of a man in distress. Scott was in poor health. His wife had died three weeks before. He was under great financial pressure to finish his book. His diary records a “throttling sensation” which impelled him to tears. To make it all worse, he was kept up all night by a howling dog. Lewis’ point is not about Scott’s distress but about his reaction. In his journal, he writes: “Poor cur! I dare say he had his distress, as I have mine.” It is difficult enough to…

Read this post

Bad Preaching


In the 15th century book Eine Haqore, Joseph ibn Shem Tov tells of a self-regarding preacher. He began by telling the congregation that his talk would be divided into three parts: the first both he and they would understand. The second, only he would understand. The third, neither of them would understand. Shem Tov adds that most of the sermons he hears fall in the third category. Sermons (or drashot) are as old as faith, and criticisms about sermons as old as sermons. “A bad preacher, like the good rain, does not know when to stop,” complained Emerson, voicing a…

Read this post

“Jewish” Time


Jewish events are notorious for starting late. As The Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann once said, “I tried my whole life to come late to a Jewish meeting and never succeeded.” Conversely, Jewish law depends upon precision in time. Sabbaths and holidays have specific starting and ending times. Ritual observances such as mourning, have definite, time-bound cycles. We seem caught between the rigor of ritual and the languor of social occasions. Perhaps each clock is a counterbalance to the other. After all, centuries of wandering do not always permit a fixed and insistent attitude towards time. Flexibility and patience are virtues…

Read this post

Alone in the Desert


The God of Israel became real to the Israelites in the desert. A seemingly barren world gave birth to a people and a mission. To some however, the desert is not charged with meaning, but empty and frightening. Naturalist Edward Abbey from his book Desert Solitaire: “Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of the primal desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other…

Read this post

Brokenness


Why is it customary for a mourner to lead the prayer service? In his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier quotes Solomon Luria’s opinion that a mourner should lead because “the King of Kings prefers broken vessels.” This lovely formulation is based on a striking passage from the Midrash: “Rabbi Alexandri said: ‘If a person uses broken vessels, it is considered an embarrassment. But God seeks out broken vessels for His use, as it says, ‘God is the Healer of Shattered Hearts.’” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:2). That we are more whole when broken is the paradox embodied in the Kotzker’s famous phrase that…

Read this post