Off the Pulpit


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A Sabbatical Farewell Message

For over twenty-five years I have written the weekly “Musings” column for The New York Jewish Week, which for more than a decade we have sent out as “Off The Pulpit.” Now, after some 1,300 weekly columns, I am taking a break. I will be on a six month sabbatical, traveling and writing, from January to June. I won’t be on e-mail or Facebook. A real break.

I plan to be back in the summer, but in the meantime, I would like to thank those of you who have read the column over the years and have occasionally written with suggestions, criticism, praise and corrections. I have discovered how easy it is to make mistakes, even in short columns. And I have also discovered the immense generosity of spirit of the readers, who frequently offer kind words and encouragement.

I aimed for the refrigerator. A triumph was a column that somehow ended up on a cork-board or a refrigerator. Of course, it is a little tough to tape your iPhone to the fridge, so, as of late, I have hoped to be forwarded to others.

The wisdom of the Jewish tradition is literally inexhaustible. When people ask about the inspiration to write each week, the simple answer is that it is all there, in the Torah, in the commentaries, in the vast sea of Talmud and Jewish literature. I know this will continue to nourish me as I hope it nourishes you, and I look forward to seeing you back next summer. In the meantime, here are two recent articles — one a NY Times review I wrote about whether the Exodus happened and why God no longer speaks to us, and the other for the Jewish Book Council on how Jews comment on one another. Please enjoy and have a restful and blessed new year. 

Judging Favorably

As a nation we suffer from imputing bad intentions. Too many people on the left assume that those on the right must be racist, and those on the right too often assume those on the left must hate America. We have never been more desperately in need of the simple wisdom of the Rabbis, to judge people favorably.

We can cherish certain values and defend them without thinking that people on the other side are venal or wicked. It is helpful to remember how often in life we have believed something we later decided was wrong; perhaps we were where someone else is standing now. Perhaps we will one day be there.

Social mistrust is corroding the coherence of our nation. When we learn to see people as we wish to be seen, as characters and not caricatures, everyone benefits. Try to get to know people who are unlike you, who disagree with you. You may discover a common passion, or even better, a simple common humanity. The Torah’s greatest teaching is that all human beings are in the image of God — even those without the simple good sense to agree with you. 

Welcoming The Stranger

Billy Wilder, legendary Hollywood writer and director of such classics as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like it Hot” was a refugee who left Germany for Paris as the Nazi party gained power. He made it briefly to America but had to leave and reapply. Wilder told the story of coming to the American Consul in Mexico, desperate to return to the U.S.
Wilder knew that many waited for years, others were never admitted. He was terrified. He explained that he had almost no documentation because it was all left behind. 
The Counsel asked him, ‘What do you do?’
‘I write movies,’ said Wilder.
‘Is that so?’ said the counsel. They stared at each other for a long time.
Finally the Counsel stamped his passport and said, ‘Write some good ones.’  
He did.
In a thousand small acts, an individual shows his heart and a nation shows its character. In a world that is driven by fear many open hands have closed into fists. Let us remember how important it is to also believe in the possibility of goodness and the power of welcoming the stranger. 

Does God Take Checks?

We live in an age of unprecedented wealth. Do we therefore live in an age of unprecedented charity?

Many studies have demonstrated that paradoxically, rich people give a much lower percentage of their income to charity than poor people. As wealth accumulates, giving does not usually follow suit. There are exceptions of course; but the rule seems to hold. 

For many people giving is a numbers game. Their livelihood will not be affected no matter how much they give. It is a matter of numbers on a page or a screen. Yet the psychological obstacles to generosity are real. Many who could give don’t simply because they feel an inexplicable sense of loss when giving away money they could easily spare.
“We have never seen nor heard of an Israelite community that does not have a charitable fund,” wrote Maimonides in the middle ages. Tzedakah is central to Jewish life. Or to put it in a story: Once a wealthy Jew came before God after death.  God asked, “I gave you so much. Why didn’t you give more to tzedakah?” The man answered, “Here, tell me what to give to — I’ll write a check!”
“I’m afraid not” God said. “Up here, we only accept receipts.”

Biblical Karma

Jacob fools his father Isaac, disguising himself as Esau and taking the blessing.

How does the Torah itself regard his action? The subtle critique can be found later on in Jacob’s story. He works for seven years to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel. At the end of that time however, he wakes up in bed next to Leah. The Rabbis imagine that when he upbraids Leah for conniving with her sister, she answers — “are there teachers without disciples?” In other words, you had it coming, buddy.

Jacob pretended to be his brother. He was deceived by Leah pretending to be her sister. He fooled his blind father by touch, and could not himself distinguish the feel of Leah from the feel of Rachel while blinded in the dark of night. The result in one case was that he benefitted from the blessing. In the other case, he had to work an additional seven years.

Our tradition calls this comeuppance, “middah k’neged middah” — measure for measure. It has affinities to the idea of Karma. There is a moral order to the universe, and sooner or later, what we do will affect what is done to us. Learning this helped Jacob grow into Israel. 


Methuselah and Me

Yes, I also read the health studies that advise eating this and avoiding that. I don’t always adhere to the recommendations but I follow them as if, well, as if my life depended on it.

At the same time, I know that you cannot savor life if I worry constantly about extending it. Living is not a contest for duration but a pageant of meaning. Grateful as I am for the drugs that put my cancer in remission, and the studies that made my eating healthier (sometimes), and the devotion of experts in all fields, I am also aware that everyone’s days are numbered and measured more in meaning than in minutes.

My father once told me he thought Methuselah was the saddest man in the Bible. Imagine, he said, living 969 years, bearing children, and not having a single accomplishment worth recording — not even that he was a good father to those same children. Not one single action that changed his world for the better. We who live for brief spans can do that each day. None of us is granted immortality but all of us can live in a way that touches eternity.

The First Teacher

“From the child of five to myself is but a step,” wrote Leo Tolstoy. “But from the new-born baby to the child of five is an astonishing distance.”

Modern research validates Tolstoy’s insight. The first years are formative. For most of history, the teacher in those early years was a child’s mother. Even though women were often voiceless in public, their influence was unparalleled in shaping the generations.

We see a clear example of this in the Torah. Abraham has several children. Isaac and Ishmael of course, but after Sarah’s death, he marries again and has six more children (Gen. 25:2). None of them carry on with their father’s belief in one God other than Isaac.

Even though all the children had the same father, only Isaac had Sarah as his mother. The Torah is making clear by telling us of Abraham’s children later in life that, much as we may admire Abraham, the Jewish line is determined by Sarah. Her early instruction and love shaped Isaac and the Jewish future. From Tolstoy to Torah the lesson is clear – beginning in the magic early years, a mother’s voice shapes our lives.

Decisions Shape Destiny

Why does the Torah so often tell the tales of siblings? From Cain and Abel, the Genesis stories and on to Moses and Aaron, we are being told something important about human nature.
Ultimately, our lives are shaped by our choices. Yes there are differences in families and circumstances; some people undoubtedly have a much more difficult road than others. Yet the Torah teaches that even when people grow up in the same family and have similar experiences and opportunities, who they become is who they choose to be. 
Everything, says the Talmud, is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven. In other words, your moral character and decisions are not a product of your environment but of your will. This is a message of empowerment. You can overcome the most difficult challenges if you believe in your own ability to forge your destiny.
Every human being is made in the image of God. Whether we honor that image or sully it, however, is not God’s choice. It is ours. We do not choose the blessings we inherit, but we do choose the blessings we become.


Poets, Martyrs, and Memory

Identity is largely memory. When asked who we are, we respond with the past — I am someone who was born here, worked there, is tied to this family and community. A painful effect of Alzheimer’s is that in wiping out memory, it erases identity as well.
What is true for individuals is true for a people. Jewish identity is shaped by Jewish memory. The less we know about who we were, the less we understand who we are.
Jewish memory includes tragedy of course, but there is much more to our tradition than catastrophe. We have been badly hurt, but we have also been greatly blessed. The faith, music, art, teaching, law, and legends of the Jewish people are integral to our self-understanding. We place a great emphasis on remembering the holocaust, and rightly so. But to remember tragedy and neglect Torah is to have a distorted identity as a Jew. Judaism is not solely what has been done to us; Judaism is far more what we have done. Our poets speak as loudly as our martyrs; if you would know who you are, listen to all the voices, and remember them. 

We Are Making Progress

Good is more laborious than bad. One wrecking ball can destroy a structure it took months to build; one driver can snarl traffic for hours in spite of thousands of good drivers; as Napoleon said to his brother, “Remember, it takes ten campaigns to create esprit de corps which can be destroyed in an instant.”

That is why we should marvel at the tremendous progress human beings have made. Yes, we have a million problems, and a single terrible war can wipe out centuries of advance (see the first sentence above). Nonetheless child mortality and extreme poverty have been cut in half in recent years and humanity’s ethical awareness has made remarkable strides forward.

Everyone acknowledges that we still have very far to go. But it matters to see how far we have come because inaction cannot be excused by: “it doesn’t make a difference anyway.” Indeed it does, and we can change the world — are changing the world – step by step. As Napoleon also said, “More battles are lost by loss of hope than by loss of blood.” Don’t lose hope – goodness is a battle worth fighting. 

Our Two Communities

Guests are invited to our sukkah, some of whom are alive and some of whom are historical. The Ushpizin, biblical characters who traditionally visit the sukkah, remind us that we all live in two communities.

There is a horizontal community. They are our contemporaries, who surround us: family and friends, teachers, work associates, and even those whom we watch or listen to and help shape our opinions about the world. Our horizontal community has the advantage of being immediate and alive; it has the disadvantage of limitation — you can only choose it from people who happen to be upright when you are.

The vertical community is composed of historical figures from every age. Here you can choose from centuries. Your guide might be a biblical character, a Rabbi from the Talmud, a Hasidic teacher of the 19th century — anyone whose legacy of learning speaks to you. The Ushpizin remind us that we do not only live in space, we live in time. If you don’t know the past you are parochial, stuck in the years you happen to be alive. Study those who went before, travel in time, and your community becomes boundless.

Low Hanging Fruit

Sukkot is a magnificent holiday. It involves building, dwelling outdoors, recalls the harvest, a journey through the ages and a memory of the desert sky. Right after Yom Kippur, with its ethereal echoes, it returns us to the earth.

Sukkot is the Jewish enactment of low hanging fruit. It is a reason to invite your friends and neighbors over, without the bother of having to clean your house (before or after!) And you have a place to put up all those cards and kids drawings. Genius.

The sukkah is a mitzvah you can do with your entire body. Even better, the mitzvah involves eating. Weather permitting, it is as though the tradition enabled us to visit a resort and called it a commandment.

When my brothers and I were little, we went “sukkah hopping” which means that we walked from sukkah to sukkah in our neighborhood and ate brownies and cookies (and maybe a grape). Years later I saw the movie “The Swimmer” based on the Cheever story about a man who swims neighborhood pools from house to house. I recognized the theme, but we had it better; no exertion. It was sukkot – we only had to smile, bless, and eat. Hag Sameach.

Love and Knowledge

Early in his career Lawrence Olivier was playing Sergius in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” When English director Tyrone Guthrie came to see the play he asked Olivier: “Don’t you love Sergius?” Olivier answered that he didn’t, and Gurthrie said to him, “Well, of course, if you can’t love him, you’ll never be any good in him, will you?”

Olivier later called this the “richest pearl of advice in my life.”

As an actor, Olivier understood that love was the entree to the character’s soul. What is true in acting is surely true in general. The best way to know a subject is to love it; the best way to know a person, is to love her or love him.
The parent who can distinguish the child’s cry, or a spouse who sees in a glance that a partner is joyous or distressed, is proving Guthrie’s point.

Judaism teaches that God’s love and God’s knowledge are both all encompassing. The more we love, the more we know.


Turn Your Head – For Rosh Hashana

The Psalmist insists that God has removed our sins “as far as east is from west.” (Ps. 103:12). How far is east from west? The Kotzker Rebbe explains – as far as a turn of your head.

We think of changing as a remote, difficult task. But sometimes it requires only a small turn. Veer slightly on the road, and over time one’s destination is quite different. Adding to one habit, or diminishing another, is a small turn that over time becomes a major change.

We read in Deuteronomy that Israel will be “Only high and not low” (28:13). Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer explains – if you drop a stone it falls to earth because that is its origin. If you light a fire it leaps up because it is nourished by air above. Everything seeks its source. The soul longs to return to God, to soar, to rise. Teshuva means return – to reconnect with our Source. All you need to do is turn your head and redirect your heart. May this be a year of repentance, health and joy.

Your Inner Isaac

My father once explained the character of the biblical Isaac by citing Abraham Mendelssohn. He was a successful banker whose father was the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and whose son was the great composer Felix Mendelssohn. Late in life he lamented, “The first half of my life I was the son of my father; the second half of my life I was the father of my son.”

Isaac was the son of Abraham, founder of the Jewish faith, and father of Jacob, source of the twelve tribes. But Isaac had his own special virtues. He re-dug the wells of his father, solidifying Abraham’s legacy. And he is the only one of the patriarchs who never left the land of Israel.

As the high holidays approach, we often think of the heroic virtues and the dramatic gesture. But a good life can be an Isaac-life. Isaac made sure the preciousness of the past was not lost and the values of the present were preserved. In his most dramatic moment, he went willingly to the altar with Abraham, full of the trust of someone who knows that faith and life often require calm, trust and steadiness. May this year help us recover our inner Isaac.

Inside and Outside

I judge myself from the inside. I know how I feel, how complex are my own motivations and ideas. My view of others is different. Especially when they do something I dislike, I often attribute a single motive, idea or personality trait to them.

Perhaps for this month of Elul we should reverse the process. Try seeing yourself from the outside — how do my actions affect others? How do they appear to them? At the same time, try to judge others from the inside: what could have moved them to do this, or why might they have done something I think is wrong — can I find good reasons for their action?

You can only see the world through your own eyes. But detachment — the attempt to move away from the center of ego toward the perspective of another — is a crucial moral exercise. Believing in the depth and complexity of other souls takes work. But then, we want them to see us that way, don’t we?

Who Made That?

Two hundred years from now, on a fine spring afternoon, scientists look up at the heavens and tell God that it is all over — humans can stand on their own.

The scientist says, “Look, God. You were good in your day but we can do everything ourselves now.”

“Really?” says God. “You can make a human being from dust?”

“Absolutely” say the scientists.

“Let me see” answers God.

The scientist reaches down to scoop up some soil, but is interrupted.

“Oh no” says God. “You get your own dust.”

Human beings have learned a remarkable amount about manipulating the world. But the risk of hubris remains. Too often we treat the world not as a gift but as a birthright. It is easy to imagine we know how to stretch the world to our whims and wishes without consequence.

The Rabbis explain that God told the first inhabitants of the garden — “If you destroy My world, there will be no one to repair it after you.” Our weaponry and our technology are powerful beyond what our ancestors dreamed. We would be wise to remember we are still playing with God’s dust.


Baruch HaShem

When you ask a religious Jew how he or she is doing, the answer is likely to be “Baruch HaShem” – blessed be God. Good news often has “Baruch Hashem” added to it as well, as in, “my children are all well, Baruch HaShem.”

Baruch Hashem appears three times in the bible. What may surprise you is that all three times it is spoken by non-Jews: by Noah in Genesis 9:26; by Abraham’s servant Eliezer in Gen. 24:27; and by Moses’ father-in-law Jethro in Exodus 18:10. This cannot be coincidence and it points to a beautiful lesson.

Not only is God sovereign over all, Jew and non-Jew alike, but God’s blessings are to all. When a Jew hears the music of Bach or the Beatles, sees the artistry of Titian or Picasso, reads the works of Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace, or perhaps sees the acrobatics of Roger Federer or LeBron James, it is also appropriate to thank God. As the Psalmist tells us (145:9), God’s blessings are over all God’s work. We live in a world filled with wonders from all of God’s people, Baruch HaShem.

Needs Wheels

From George Prochnik’s award winning biography of Stefan Zweig, “The Impossible Exile”:

“One day in the 1920’s when Zweig happened to be traveling to Germany with Otto Zarek, the two men stopped off to visit an exhibition of antique furniture at a museum in Munich. After some desultory meandering around the galleries, Zweig stopped short before a display of enormous medieval wooden chests.

“Can you tell me,” he abruptly asked, “which of these chests belonged to Jews?” Zarek stared uncertainly — they all looked of equally high quality and bore no apparent marks of ownership.

“Zweig smiled. “Do you see these two here? They are mounted onwheels. They belonged to Jews. In those days — as indeed always! — the Jewish people were never sure when the whistle would blow, when the rattled of the pogrom would creak. They had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice….Yes, these chests on wheels are striking symbols of the Jewish fate.”

We are blessed to live in a generation when we do not fear fleeing at any moment. May we never again live in a world where all of our possessions need wheels.

Two Rights Can Make A Wrong

Most ethical dilemmas, like most tragedies, are not a conflict of right and wrong but a conflict of rights. People want different, competing and sometimes worthy things that cannot coexist.

The authors of the Federalist papers knew this well. When Madison writes that, “the causes of faction cannot be removed and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects” he is telling us that there will always be division — there will always be good reasons for division — and we have to be vigilant in not allowing those divisions to destroy us.

Work and family, competing loyalties, rival loves, universalism and particularism, understanding and opposition — many things make a claim and sometimes their clash will result in tragedy. As we grow we try to bring things together that once seemed far apart. But since outside of God there is no ultimate unity, life calls for thoughtfulness, empathy and the restraint that does not deny conviction, but tempers it with understanding.

Responsibilities and Dreams

This past week all across the world Jews mourned the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And they blamed themselves.

Yes, there are passages in Jewish literature that excoriate the nations who carried out the destruction. There are even passages that express anger at God. But primarily the Jews attribute the catastrophes of their history to their own misdeeds. In that is a danger and a blessing.

The danger is clear: when something catastrophic happens that is not at all the fault of the people, such as the Shoah, to blame oneself is a moral monstrosity. No one should feel responsible for the inflicted evil of another.

Yet the blessing is that the Jews were able to survive because we believed in the wisdom of the tradition, the love of God, the promise of history and the possibility of doing better. If it was our fault today, it need not be our fault again tomorrow. What we have destroyed we can rebuild; what we have neglected we can enact; what we have failed we can fulfill.

So after Tisha B’Av comes the great project to restore the possibilities of Jewish destiny. To reverse the poet’s line, in responsibility begins dreams.


Direct Your Heart To Heaven

From the Talmud:

A favorite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was: “I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one, provided he directs his heart to heaven.” Berachot 17a

Judaism is a tradition of action but motivation counts as well. The world is filled with various tasks and the way you go about your work makes a difference. One who plants crops, who raises children, who practices medicine, who sells clothes and who writes poems all do vital work in God’s world.

Strikingly, the Talmud says this is a “favorite” saying. The idea that all work can be sacred if invested with the intention of sanctity can console us when things go badly and uplift us when they go well. Direct your heart to heaven.

Gifted, but Good?

We are a society geared toward the gifted. We have programs to enhance people’s natural endowments, special training and tutoring, early identification of people with talent or intelligence. Of course it makes sense; innovators and artists and thinkers should be given opportunities to grow their gifts. But moral education has to go hand in hand with ability; those who can make the greatest contribution need the greatest sensitivity to ethical issues.

The Torah teaches this with the story of Bilaam. Bilaam was a pagan, but according to the Rabbis, he was the most gifted prophet in the world. In a startling passage, they compare Bilaam’s abilities to Moses and Moses comes up short: “Moses did not know when God would speak with him. Bilaam knew… Moses only spoke with God standing up — Bilaam spoke with God even lying down.”

You would think that the Torah would be the story of Bilaam, but he plays a very minor part. Moses used his gifts for goodness. His stature did not come from his capacities alone; it came from his passion for God, for the people and his unswerving determination for justice. It is good to be gifted when the gifted are good.

Listen Israel

Deuteronomy is the great book of listening. We live in a visual time; our age is saturated with images. Everyone’s cellphone carries a camera and can document the sights of our lives. But over and over in the first chapters of Deuteronomy we read the word ‘shma’ — listen, until we reach the famous line of the Shma prayer itself (Deut 6:4).

Judaism expounds and echoes. In the bare desert there was little to see but much to hear. God does not appear, but speaks. The Talmud is called the Oral tradition, because it was passed down in stories and wisdom from teacher to student, and repeatedly one comes across students repeating what they heard from their teachers.

Every child has access to endless images on screens. But Judaism is carried along in voices; we do not see Abraham and Sarah greeting angels, Joseph revealing himself to his brothers or Moses ascending the mountain; we imagine it when we hear their deeds retold. In the chanting of the prayer and the magic of the tale is religious wonder.

Tell stories to your children. Listen, Israel.


Franz Kafka in his famous parable “Before the Law” writes about a man who stands before a door designated only for him, but dies without entering. A very different spirit from Kafka, Ralph Waldo Emerson, nonetheless anticipated the existentialist by writing: “Men live on the brink of mysteries and harmonies into which they never enter, and with their hand on the door latch they die outside.”

During the Neilah service of Yom Kippur, the liturgy tells of the gates closing. The origin is both literal and metaphorical: the gates that closed on the ancient Temple at the end of a long day, and the gates of repentance that are closing in heaven. But the assumption the tradition makes is that we can enter. No one need die outside the gates.

One may see life is a great unfulfillment, where there are promises and possibilities that mock us in our insufficiency. Or we may view life as a series of doors we are able to enter, blessings given and goodness grasped. A mezuzah is hung on the door not as a reminder when you merely see it, but to kiss when you open the door and walk through to the other side.



Do you know OTSOG? That is the shorthand for “On the Shoulders of Giants” an absolutely singular book. In the mid 1960’s, the renowned sociologist Robert Merton decided to find out the origin of the phrase attributed to Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The search takes him through many lands, fields of learning and languages (including Hebrew and Jewish scholarship.) He rambles and speculates with wit and astonishing erudition. It is an intellectual romp and a tour de force.

Merton also illustrates how thoughtful human beings throughout the ages have felt the benefit of those who preceded them. We are all on their shoulders. Judaism, with its penchant for quotation and citation, constantly acknowledges its debt to the past. To ignore the wisdom of earlier generations is to condemn oneself to poverty of the mind.

As we learn, the phrase goes back – at least – many hundreds of years before Newton. For all we know some Philistine child coined it atop Goliath before he was felled by David. We stand, all of us, on the shoulders of giants. But to appreciate the view it helps now and then to open a book.


L.P. Smith put it this way: “I might give up my life for my friend, but he had better not ask me to do up a parcel.” Another Smith, Zadie, put it even better: “I will do anything for my family except visit them.”  Both were kidding of course. Sort of.

The small burdens of life are in fact sometimes more difficult than the major crises. We all show up for the funeral. But we forget the birthday, the weekly call, or the holiday visit. Life is always rushing at us, and while we can rouse ourselves for the big moments, in quieter times we are likely to remain on the couch.

Yet as a giant brick is not a dwelling, a heroic act is not a friendship. Each relationship is built on an accumulation of small acts, as a house is an accumulation of small stones. Emerson taught wisely, “Go often to the house of your friend. Weeds choke the unused path.” Rare is the funeral where I do not hear the lament – “had I only spent more time when he was alive.” Well, right now she’s alive.


Do People Change?

Recently an experiment involving almost 20,000 people showed that we consistently acknowledge that we have changed in the past but underestimate how much we will change in the future. The music the subjects thought they would love forever changed, and sometimes their taste in food as well as ingrained habits and ideas. We believe we will be the same tomorrow as today, but actually we change a good deal.

George Bernard Shaw once remarked that the only person who understood him was his tailor, since his tailor measured him anew each time they met. If we are wise, we will reserve judgment on others as well as ourselves.

Repentance, “teshuva” is a promise of the possibility of change. It is easy to have settled ideas about who we are and to be equally settled about the character of others. But there is wisdom in that marvelous movie, the Philadelphia story, when Katherine Hepburn declares passionately, “the time to make up your mind about people is never.”


Lodestar Love

The Torah teaches us what to value, sometimes by faithfulness and sometimes by forsakenness.

Despite many trials and difficulties, Ruth remains faithful to Naomi and through that faith, reconstructs their lives and paves the way for the coming of the Messiah.

Samson should treasure his people and God, yet forsakes both for ego that struts for an hour on the stage before he is reminded of his destiny.

Moses remains faithful and fulfills his mission.

Saul is betrayed by his own insecurity and uncertainty, forsakes his calling and fails as King of Israel.

The Torah’s message is clear: do not let the distractions of the moment derail you from the deep certainties that should guide a life. Bitachon, trust in God and in the love that brings will be the lodestar of the divided heart.

Or in the words of the great poet:
Endless the grief of one
who, for love of things that do not last,
casts off a love that never dies. (Dante, Paradiso XV)

Loving and Being Loved

What is the meaning of the ‘badeken’ — veiling the bride before the wedding ceremony? Some associate it with Rebecca, who upon meeting her future husband Isaac, placed a veil over her face. Others, perhaps more fancifully, associate it with Jacob and Leah, since Jacob intended to marry Rachel and woke up to her older sister.

The first time I conducted a wedding however, a deeper meaning to the veiling ceremony seemed clear to me. The Kotzker Rebbe once sharply rebuked his disciples — “Masks! Where are your faces?” He was pointing out that we all wear masks, or veils — professional, personal, sometimes deliberately and sometimes without even realizing it. To be authentic in a world of judgment is frightening. So we reveal parts of ourselves to selected people.

But there should be at least one person in this world before whom you can be fully seen, before whom you do not need to wear a veil. If we are lucky, we can share our lives with a partner who really knows, accepts and loves us. At the end of the wedding ceremony, the veil is lifted and the bride and groom look into each other’s eyes. Here is love, here is acceptance, here is the presence of God — without a veil.

The Key to the Treasure

In his short story “Scheherazade,” novelist John Barth writes that “the key to the treasure is the treasure.”

I think about this sometimes when I listen to the Torah reader on Shabbat. The ability to read an ancient text seems as great a gift as the meaning itself. For a tradition to remain accessible after thousands of years is itself an extraordinary blessing. We hold the key, and holding it is itself a treasure.

The Rabbis understood and dramatized this lesson. We are told that when the ancient Temple was burning the Cohanim climbed to the roof and threw the keys to the Temple toward the heavens, and a hand emerged to receive them (Ta’anit 29b).

Many years ago I heard my father comment on this Midrash that while the Priests threw the keys to the Temple, they did not throw the keys to the Torah. That remained in our hands, because with it we could one day rebuild what we had lost. Learning is our key, as precious in itself as the lessons it unlocks.

The Hidden Image

Do you know the legend of the angels and the Divine image? A group of angels heard that God intended to create human beings in God’s own likeness, and they thought human beings unworthy. So they plotted to hide the Image. One proposed a mountaintop, but another angel pointed out that human beings climb, and would discover it. Another suggested at the bottom of the ocean, but here too there was a flaw in the plan – human beings are naturally curious about the world, and would descend and find the Image even at the ocean’s floor.

Finally the shrewdest angel proposed that the Image be hidden within human beings themselves, because it is the last place they would be likely to look. And so it was.

Judaism teaches us to foil the angelic plan. We must look for the Divine Image within ourselves, and within others. There are mysteries on the mountaintop and secrets in the ocean, but the greatest treasure is found inside the human heart.

When The Light Goes Out

In the past week very heavy winds struck Los Angeles, and in our chapel a window broke and the Ner Tamid came crashing down. Ner Tamid is usually translated as “eternal light” and it is supposed to be perpetually lit as inspired by the menorah in the ancient Temple, and some say, as a reminder of God’s eternal presence.

So what happens when such a light is extinguished? In our chapel, what happened was that the children who witnessed it continued their service and our prayer minyan continues morning and evening each day while it is being repaired. The light is a symbol; the behavior it is intended to inspire is what counts most of all.

Throughout Jewish history, synagogues have been destroyed or abandoned and ‘eternal’ lights extinguished. The true eternal light is in the heart of each Jew who takes up the words of the tradition and offers them back to God. Despite the winds, the window and the crash, the light did not go out in our chapel; prayer and God’s presence still shine bright.


Why Should Secular Jews Give To Jewish Causes?

Recently I was asked what I would say to a secular Jew who wondered why he should donate to Jewish causes. This was my answer:If you travel throughout the United States, indeed throughout the world, you will see that Jews have given vast sums to cultivate the arts, sciences, medical research and so forth. The amount given is wildly disproportionate to our very small numbers. Why? Because centuries of Jewish teaching have implanted in our spiritual DNA the necessity of supporting such causes.

Now you – the secular Jew – may not believe in the teachings that shaped you. Nonetheless, they did shape you. As the generous person you have become is a boon to the world, you should want more to be like you. So support the places that will produce more Jews who will give. No one can force belief, but we can very effectively cultivate values. If you are proud of who you have become, give others the same chance. Jewish schools, camps, Federations and synagogues need support not only for the good of Judaism, but for the good of the world.

Three Extraordinary Lives: Kirk Douglas, Abe Zarem, & Max Webb

The rabbis teach that Abraham was the first who had the merit of looking old. Notice the word — “merit.” It was considered, by our tradition, a good thing; it meant you had lived and learned. We compliment people by saying, “You look so young!” Accomplishment and wisdom counted more to our ancestors than vitality; innocence was not as valued as experience. For our tradition, what lay before you was not as important as what was behind you.

Recently in my synagogue, we celebrated three remarkable individuals who reached their 100th birthdays. One hundred years is a long time when measuring a human life. Each was distinguished in different fields, and together, they summed up the Jewish experience of the 20th century.

I am proud and privileged to introduce you to the star, the scientist and the survivor.

It is a privilege and a blessing to know each of them. The first is the star: Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch.

One day in the mid-’90s, I was preparing to move back to New York to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The phone rang and when I answered, the voice on the other end of the line said, “This is Kirk Douglas.”

Yes, I wanted to say, and I’m the queen of England.

But it was! He had seen me on a TV show about the Bible and wanted to study together. But I was leaving. Two years later, when I came to Sinai Temple, we reconnected and have been studying together ever since.

The first time I met him, he told me that because of his stroke, he spoke slowly and felt a little guilty for it. I said, “Don’t feel guilty, everyone uses what they have. Didn’t you always use the fact that you were handsome and charming?” I asked. “You know,” Douglas answered, “I never thought I was handsome.”

“Really?” I marveled, “and what about charming?”

“Oh,” he said, “I always knew I was charming.”

Kirk Douglas grew up so poor that his father would pick up rags off the street and resell them. On a hot day when I was marveling at air conditioning, I said to him, “My God, in your day, you had a block of ice and a fan.” He fixed me with his famous stare and said, “Who had a fan?”

But he roared out of Brooklyn and onto the stage and screen. He named his production company after his mother, Bryna. She lived to see it in lights on Broadway. Surrounded by friends and family, he celebrated his 100th birthday.

He and his wife, Anne, have dedicated almost 500 playgrounds, enabling kids from poor neighborhoods to have beautiful, modern facilities on which to play. In addition to his other charities, they named the Early Childhood Center here at Sinai Temple.

The scientist, Abe Zarem, was born in Chicago. Abe is among the dwindling number of surviving people who worked on the Manhattan Project, the greatest cooperative scientific endeavor of modern times. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer directed the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where scientists dedicated themselves to building an atomic bomb before our enemies accomplished it.

After such an auspicious beginning, Abe went on to the Stanford Research Institute and became vice president of Xerox. He is also responsible for the invention of the camera with the fastest shutter speed in the world.

But Abe is gifted not only with an extraordinary scientific mind. His mother told him when he was young that his life’s mission was to meet gifted people and make them better than they would have been if they hadn’t met him. So Abe mentored thousands of people — scientists and CEOs and more than a couple of rabbis.

When Abe first took me under his wing, he told me he was a mentor and a tormentor. He pushed, encouraged and gave honest feedback.

Our Chumashim are dedicated by Abe and Esther as a legacy of this man. Each time we follow along in the Torah, it is because of the philanthropy of Abe Zarem, whose foundation gives to causes near and far.

On Yom Kippur, this then-99-year-old man chanted the Book of Jonah — the entire book — in a voice the entire congregation could hear. It rang out, and we were stunned by the vitality and skill of someone who has seen so much and done so much.
And the survivor: Max Webb. Max was born in Lodz, Poland. He and his family were taken by the Nazis. He trained himself as a medic and survived 18 concentration camps. He saw the worst of human beings.

But he knew he would survive if it was possible. He told his mother when the Nazis were coming that if she heard he was shot or hanged, it might be true, but if she heard he starved, don’t believe it. He knew he had the smarts and resources to survive.

After the war, he became a dance instructor. And the same grace and spirit that animated his dance has woven throughout his life.

Max’s success as a builder touches all areas of his life. He promised that if he survived, he would help rebuild Jewish life. And he has — here and in Israel. Apart from the actual buildings he has created, many synagogues, schools and even university programs owe their existence to this remarkable man.

I could not be more proud to be the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple.

No life can be adequately summarized in a few sentences. Even more, no 100-year-old life can. And most of all, not lives as rich and fascinating as those of Kirk, Abe and Max.

In these three lives is the story of our people. The star, the scientist, the survivor. One created works of art that millions admire. The second created products and ideas that benefited the lives of countless people. The third supported Jewish life here and abroad and told the story of our people over and over again to young and old.

All three have unbelievable life force. These are men who, even at 100, sparkle with life and give you life when you are with them. They have seen incredible changes; they were born at the end of World War I, an era of trench warfare and silent pictures. These men and a few others like them took that world and brought it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Not only their talents, but their longevity enabled these three titans to contribute so much to our community and to the world. We are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of their goodness, generosity and wisdom. The rabbis were right: The blessings of age are often greater than the blessings of youth.

Becoming Who You Are

Many Hasidic passages teach that true worship of God comes from inside oneself. Rabbi Bunim commenting on a passage in the Talmud, said that if one wishes to be stringent solely because his father was stringent, he is not allowed to do so. Authenticity and not imitation is the standard of devotion.

If that is so, what do we do with the many teachings that are inheritances? Surely most of Judaism is what we learn from others, not what we arrive at ourselves.

First we must distinguish between commandments, which need not originate with oneself, and practices which are outgrowths of those commandments. Rabbi Bunim spoke of special practices that each individual can cultivate for himself. But also, Judaism teaches us that observance seeps inward: we begin by doing something because we learned it and end by doing it because it has become part of our life-pattern. As we grow into Torah, our authenticity takes the shape of the tradition, each with its own individual variation. Judaism is cast in the shape of the human soul; who we are and what we learn fuse into a Jewish lifestyle.

Why Elijah – And When?

Why do we open the door for Elijah at the Passover Seder? In the Bible, Elijah does not die (he goes up to heaven in a chariot – see 2 Kings, chapter 2). Therefore he is the prophet our tradition assumes will return to announce the coming of the Messiah.

The cup of Elijah stands on the table because of an unresolved Talmudic dispute over whether there should be four or five cups of wine at the Seder table. We use four. If Elijah drinks, we learn that five is the correct answer. The Rabbis teach that when Elijah comes all remaining disputes of law will be resolved. So keep your eye on that cup.

Finally, there are particular reasons for the special times Elijah is anticipated – at a brit milah, the end of Shabbat, the end of Yom Kippur, and Passover. But also, they are all family times. We are told of the Messiah that: “He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6). So if on the night of the Seder you are gathered in joy with family, you have experienced a taste of the Messianic age, even if Elijah has not yet arrived. Chag Kasher V’sameach.


Soul Food

Is it strange to say that Jews don’t read the Bible? We study the Torah, of course, but for many that is an enterprise confined to synagogue. So we read the five books, and the haftaroth, which are passages from the historical and prophetic writings. But even the books that are part of the liturgical calendar — Jonah, Esther, Ecclesiastes and so forth, are too often neglected.

But what riches! To read the book of Job is to understand why it is a touchstone for sufferers throughout the generations. Its eloquence and anger speak for every person in pain. Its arguments feel as if lifted from our own hearts and turned to poems. Ecclesiastes (Koheleth) is a compendium of life wisdom, that grows with the years we bring to it. Ruth is a tale of charm and commitment that draws people to Judaism to this day. This is just a sampling, and all of these books can be read in a very brief time.

Yes, much has changed since the time of the Bible, but not the human heart. Our frustrations were anticipated by Koheleth, our sense of peril by Esther, our exultation at love by the Song of Songs. These books have fed souls for thousands of years. Find out why. Feed your soul.

The Door To Your Heart

Everyone knows that the conditions of life make a huge difference to its quality. If you are hungry, or sick, or sad over loss, it is much harder to feel that life is as good as when your needs are met. But we also know that sometimes a shift in attitude can make a dramatic difference. And a wise, loving word can help us see things in a new light.

Rabbi Aryeh Levin was called the holy man of Jerusalem. He spent his adult life visiting prisoners of all sorts, bringing them food, learning and comfort. Once after Passover some of the prisoners said to Rabbi Levin that because they were in prison they could not perform the rite of opening the door for Elijah. Therefore they did not feel they had a real chance at redemption.

Rabbi Levin’s answer: “Every person is in a prison of his own self. He cannot leave by going out of the house, but only by opening the door of the heart. And to make an opening in his own heart – that anyone can do, even a prisoner behind bars. And then he truly will be spiritually free.”

Trash Heap and Treasure

When I ran a library I often had the experience of pulling a book from the shelf, out of idle curiosity, only to discover that no one had looked at that book for many years. Sometimes, as I began to leaf through it I discovered treasures. In the spirit of the marvelous site, things that seemed moribund sprung to life and made a difference.

Such experiences remind me of the mania for preservation that drives the Jewish people. Why do we continually tend vast gardens of old learning? In part because one never knows when a comment, an insight or interpretation, will spring to life in someone’s soul, and give the guidance that makes a difference.

Joseph Brodsky was a Russian-Jewish Nobel prize winning poet. He proposed a vast poetry publishing project: “Books find their readers. And if they will not sell, well, let them lie around, absorb dust, rot, and disintegrate. There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap. I was such a child, for what it’s worth; so, perhaps, were some of you.” So, I hope, are all of us.

Five Minutes Longer

In years of watching people accomplish remarkable things, I have seen affirmed what my father told me when I was a child – the secret of success is stamina.

It is wonderful to have gifts, but I have known extravagantly gifted people who cannot lift their legs out of the mud. There are many explanations for the greatness of Moses, but surely central is that for forty years, each day, he lifted the burden of a people on his shoulders and bore them through the desert. Think of the mornings he arose and wished to cast off the task; he complained to God about it, but he did not give up.

No area of life is immune from the rule that determination in difficulty will yield results: in parenting, in work, in friendship and in love.

Even at crucial moments in history, it is the extra helping of stamina that makes the difference. After winning the world historical battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington famously said that his soldiers were not braver than Napoleon’s, but they were braver five minutes longer.

What You Have – Who You Are

It is common to take pride in possessions, but perhaps that is why the Jewish people started out with nothing, as slaves. For the essence of Judaism is not possession but action. We are taught to take pride not in what we have but who we are. The goods of this world move from person to person, but our attributes shape our essence. The great English essayist Hazlitt says the following in his piece “On Personal Identity”:

“I have the love of power, but not of property. I should like to be able to outstrip a greyhound in speed; but I should be ashamed to take any merit to myself from possessing the fleetest greyhound in the world. I cannot transfer my personal identity from myself to what I merely call mine. The generality of mankind are contented to be estimated by what they possess, instead of what they are.”

Moses has nothing, but is everything. When the great Chofetz Chaim was visited by tourists and they saw the bareness of his possessions, one asked: “Where are your things?” The Rabbi said in turn, “Where are yours?” The startled visitor answered, “But we are just passing through.”

“Yes,” said the sage with a smile, “me too.”


Tell Me A Story

Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights tells stories that keep her alive. So long as the king is enchanted by what comes next, night after night, he will ensure her safety.

When contemplating the astonishing survival of the Jewish people I sometimes think of Scheherazade. There is a great deal of emphasis on Jewish law and interpretation and text and ritual. But history — the Jewish story — is an ever branching tree that has flourished for thousands of years. “And you shall tell your children” we are admonished over and over again. Our story sustains us.

The story is always changing. We uncover new bits and change some old ones. A fragment is unearthed, a memory recalled, a new angle lends freshness to a familiar tale. At times popular recounting and historical accuracy do not precisely mesh. Yet through it all the thread of narrative — these things happened, you should remember them, you should repeat them to those who come after — wraps itself around the hearts of generations.

As the British writer Philip Pullman said; “’Thou shalt not’ might reach the head but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” We are the Jewish people — let us tell you a story.

Older and Wiser?

When I was young I made an astonishing discovery about Jewish daily prayer. Each morning service had a confessional. I remember wondering, do we really sin each day?

When I paid attention to my own conduct and that of my classmates, I realized the prescience of the tradition. We hit each other, hurt each other and often said cruel things. We were kids. The confessional gave us a moment in each service to think about what we had done and to face up to it before God.

But I do remember thinking – surely when I get older I will get better at this! I did not like all my teachers equally but I could not imagine that they would do the sorts of things I did, so I assumed that the confessional when you got older would be pro forma – something one did because it was part of the service, but not as essential as when one was young.

Now I am the same age, and in some cases older, than the teachers I had back then. The daily confession is still in the service – and once more I tip my hat (or unclip my kippah) to the tradition, which was far wiser than I.

Marking Time

Before the final plague, the Torah sets out the calendar, announcing the first month in Spring. In slavery there is no distinction between days; each is a grueling succession of labor and harshness. But to be free means to mark time and shape it.

At the very beginning of our journey as a people, God teaches us to create sacred time. The desert may seem eternally the same, but the days themselves will not be. We count by the moon, which changes, waxing and waning, hinting at the fullness to come.

“This is the first month to you (Ex. 12:2).” Why “to you”? People who are truly free are not controlled by time. Their watches do not become handcuffs. Their lives are not dominated by the frosty ideal of efficiency. They live according to the rhythm of the seasons and the cycle of celebrations. From our first steps to freedom Jews learned that the secret is not to save time, but to sanctify it.

The Laughing Philosopher

Each of us has witnessed things that if unshared, the world will never know. I would like to tell you of a remarkable event I once saw, so that the image will live on.

There is a custom in Israel on Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, for children, sometimes carried on the shoulders of their parents, to walk around the streets with plastic hammers, bopping people on the head. I don’t know its origin, but everyone who has been there has witnessed the glee.

Many years ago on this day I was walking on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and I spotted the tall, stately figure of philosopher Emil Fackenheim. Fackenheim, most famous for his declaration after the Holocaust that we must practice Judaism to deny Hitler a posthumous victory, was walking toward my direction and I could see him clearly. A young boy on his father’s shoulders came up behind him and whacked him on the head with a plastic hammer. Fackenheim’s face darkened. He turned around and saw the boy, who was laughing hysterically. The philosopher at first smiled and then he too began to laugh. I will never forget that unique snapshot from modern Israel. I repeat it here because the story of the laughing philosopher should not be lost.


A Life Of Balance

Spirituality in modern teachings often emphasizes self-actualization. As a unique human being, you are called to develop your potential, your spark of godliness.

The second side of this is the call of the ‘other.’A truly ethical life, in this view, is lived less by developing your own capacities than by devoting yourself to developing the capacities of other people.

Sometimes the two are made into one – how do you awaken your own gifts? Through giving to others.

While that is partly true, the simple solution is too simple. There are areas of cultivation that require solitude and even selfishness. You cannot study, pray, think deeply, draw your family close while simultaneously doling out food to those in need, or providing comfort to the bereaved.

So among competing claims we seek balance. Each has to decide how much of life is devoted to others and how much is a cultivation of self. To everything, Koheleth reminds us, there is a season. For oneself, for others. To rest and to give. To grow your soul and to offer that grown soul to a world in need.

Poetry Of Our People

I spent my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. There I studied literature and wrote a letter to my parents about how deeply I was enamored of the great British poets – Wordsworth, Burns, Byron and others. I will never forget my father’s reply.

He told me he was glad I was getting so much out of the year. But then he reminded me that English literature became the literature of the world “on the backs of British soldiers.” Jews, he wrote, had poets but no armies; I should not neglect Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gabirol and Bialik and Tzernikovsky. For they too were great, he said, and moreover, “they are yours.”

Literature belongs to all humanity of course, but just as Burns has a special weight for the Scots, and Pushkin for Russians, so the Psalmist and Alterman and Amichai speak in a special way to Jewish history. Their voices, and those of other Jewish poets, were born in the synagogue, the study hall, the shtetl and the state. There is poetry in our prayers but there is also prayer in our poetry. Read it and learn who we have been and who we might become.

What Makes A Congregation

In the book of Numbers, we are told that silver trumpets will summon the congregation and set the camps to march (10:2). In a beautiful comment, Rabbi Soloveitchik delineates the difference:

“An encampment is created out of a desire for self-defense and thrives on fear. A Congregation is fashioned out of longing for the realization of an exalted moral idea and thrives on love.”

People and nations often band together out of fear. But closeness that has roots in fear will dissolve when the threat passes. More than that, there is often a residual shame in caring for one another only because we were frightened.

A true edah, a congregation, is bound by love in pursuit of something higher than themselves. The connection is more powerful and lasting than fear. The survival of the Jews is often foolishly attributed to being hated or to fear. Many groups have been hated throughout history and most are gone. The Jewish people survives because we are animated by the highest of ideals and bound together by love. From its earliest days, Israel has been far more than a camp. We are a congregation. 

5 Spiritual New Year’s Resolutions

The best resolutions are elastic—they cannot be broken with a single act. If you swear never to touch red meat, one burger ruins the resolution. If, on the other hand, you pledge to eat healthier food, each day you have a chance to fulfill the resolution anew. Below are five elastic spiritual resolutions that can carry you throughout the year.

1. Engage with people more than pixels.
Looking at a phone is quick and undemanding. Texting is easier than talking—it gives you intimacy without danger. This year, resolve to spend more time looking into someone’s eyes when you communicate with them. Replace an extended exchange on text with a meeting for coffee. Make a promise of presence.

2. Take your soul seriously.
It is easy to pretend that what we watch and how we speak have no effects on us. But the constant pounding of hatreds and dehumanization that marks so much of our media have consequences for our character. Part of who you are is the sum of the influences you choose: what you watch, who you associate with, how you speak about others both publicly and privately. Life is a continuous journey of soul shaping, and this year, resolve to keep your deep journey in mind. Turn away from something seductive but corrosive—Twitter rants full of bile, or people who continually insult those around them, or depictions of violence that take savage delight in suffering. You only get one soul; don’t squander it in things unworthy of its majesty.

3. Increase your kindness.
If you wish to feel kind, do something good. The great secret of moral growth is that it often begins from the outside. Rather than your joy leading you to smile, your smile can lead you to joy. Behave generously even when you do not feel like it and the habit will grow as will your innate quality of kindness. The act can be small or large; it can be a charitable contribution or a gentle word or help with a heavy bag on an airplane. Do it. 

4. Choose someone to forgive.
All of us have legitimate grievances in our lives. Some people are very hard to forgive but you need not begin with the toughest cases. Small acts of grace will grow. Forgive the guy who cut you off in the street; after all, you have cut people off as well, on purpose or inadvertently. Forgive the person who made an unkind remark about you. Choose a place to begin. The more you forgive, the less the world can injure you; forgiveness is a soft shield for your soul.

5. In forgiving, include yourself.
Fight against perfectionism. Leave a dropped stitch in the knitting of your life. There will always be more possibilities to get something wrong than to get it right. Allow yourself the latitude of mistakes, without self-punishing. God is supposed to be perfect, not human beings. Have expectations of yourself, but don’t enforce them with a hammer.

The New Year is here. You have not wasted a single day of the future. So here is your chance to live purposefully. Will you achieve this every day? Of course not (see #5 above). The key resolution is not to triumph or to always succeed. Resolutions of the spirit come down to one thing: in this New Year, grow.