Off the Pulpit


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Switch Sides

When we light the Hanukkiah we celebrate the last triumph of Jewish sovereignty until modern times. As the Rabbis instruct us, baseless hatred put an end to Israel as an independent nation. Historically this is not an idle homily. Jews fought among themselves and could not reconcile their own conflicts. Finally, the Romans did it for them, with disastrous consequences.

We read these lessons. We do not always learn from them. With regard to Israel I have heard vituperation both right and left. Each side at times seems eager to believe the worse of the other’s motivations, assuming that their own are pure. None of us walks through the world without mud on our boots.

Here’s a project I dream of: to have the leaders of the right and the left commit themselves once a year to giving a speech offering the best case for the other side. It would not only be a forensic exercise; it would be an offering of the heart. There is no trick to tolerance when you don’t care. But is there empathy left in us for the hardest questions? Dare we think, even for a moment, that the other side might have a point?

Eyes Of Love

Abraham greets angels in the book of Genesis (Ch. 18). Many years later, his grandson Jacob has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder.

Long after his dream, at the end of ch. 32, Jacob does not only dream of angels, but actually sees them as he is leaving his Uncle Laban. Why is it that Jacob who before had only night visions is now, like his grandfather Abraham, actually able to see the angels before him?

Remember what happened in the house of Laban: Jacob married and had children. Running away from home he was a gifted but also scared and opportunistic young man. Now he has fallen in love. Abraham knew love with Sarah and so he could see the angels. Once Jacob has known love, what was just a dream has become reality.

The Torah often asks us to look carefully to learn even central lessons. Here the angels are telling us: if you wish to see what others miss, learning alone will not help. You have to love.

From Mishaps To Miracles

Sometimes life does not give you what you wish. Take the example of Moses ben Chanoch. A scholar in Babylonia, he took to the sea to raise money for his academy. He was captured by Pirates, and eventually ransomed by the Jewish community. This Babylonian scholar ended up in Cordova, Spain. At the time, Spain was a Jewish backwater, and when the congregation recognized they had a learned man in their midst, the Rabbi of the community voluntarily resigned and Rabbi Moses ben Chanoch became the Rabbi of Cordova.

That was a turning point in the history of Spanish Jewry. Until that moment the Asiatic countries were the center of Jewish learning but now things began to shift to Europe. Under Rabbi Moses’ leadership, Spain became a great center of Jewish wisdom, leading to what we know of as the “Golden Age of Spain”.

No doubt Rabbi Moses ben Chanoch wished to be a scholar in Babylonia before he was derailed by the vagaries of life. Yet his seeming catastrophe became a blessing to Judaism. Often, what we do not choose enables us to achieve what we did not imagine. Take courage, have faith, and remember that from mishaps miracles may grow.

Special Edition: Sharing Biblical Stories and 100 Years of Life Lessons with Kirk Douglas

We were in the middle of the Book of Esther, where the new queen is being prepared by the eunuchs of the court for a fateful meeting with the king. “I’ve got the movie,” Kirk Douglas said, eyes sparkling as he imagined a scene playing out.

“What’s the movie?” I asked.

“Well, I play one the of the court eunuchs,” he said. “I dress her and undress her. Only I’m not really a eunuch!”

For the last 20 years I have studied Bible once a week with Douglas. In those years he lost his youngest son to a drug overdose, endured the heartbreak of seeing his grandson imprisoned for dealing drugs, watched his son Michael win a lifetime achievement award (“What does that make me? Winner of some posthumous prize?”), marked 50 years with his wife, Anne, and struggled with his legacy and mortality. On Friday he turned 100. 

Several years ago I asked why he was studying the Bible at this stage of his life. It is the best book of stories in the world, he replied.

It is difficult to imagine what it means to live a century, world-famous for most of it. His relatively modest Beverly Hills house is filled with gifts from other world-famous people. I admired an ornate hand mirror on my first visit. “Oh, Anwar Sadat gave that to me,” he said, offhandedly. Once you’ve partied with Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy, you aren’t easily excited.

I asked him once if he remembered Jackie Robinson. “Do I remember him? Do I remember him?” he scoffed. “Rabbi, I was 4 years old when women got the vote.” When on a hot day I said how much I appreciated air conditioning and guessed that as a kid he’d probably relied on a block of ice and a fan, he fixed me with a half-comic glare and said, “Who had a fan?”

Douglas was a notoriously pugnacious star who projected a burning, internal anger on the screen. I still see glimpses of that smoldering ire as he reads certain sections of the Bible or discusses political events when we meet; it was not entirely acting. A doctor who treated many Hollywood stars confided to me that Douglas was among his toughest patients. “He once punched a hole in my wall because he had a cold,” he told me. “As if germs had some nerve inconveniencing Kirk Douglas.” He could also be openhanded and brave on behalf of the underdog. His orneriness was part of what enabled him to insist that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo get sole screen credit for “Spartacus” in 1960.

Those sharp edges have softened over time. “I don’t know if studying made him nicer or he was nicer so he studied,” his son Michael told me several years ago. “But you are seeing him at his kindest.”

Several years ago he and Anne sold much of their precious art collection to fund a foundation that has built more than 400 school playgrounds all over California. They have attended, together, the opening of every single one. They have given away tens of millions, notably to schools and the Motion Picture Home for the Aged.

Douglas has survived a heart attack, a stroke and a helicopter crash. He reads the Bible for its stories of struggle, and feels an affinity for the more troubled characters. When my book on King David was optioned by Warner Bros., he lamented being too old to play him in the movie. David, he told me, was his kind of complicated character, noble, strong and sinful. Douglas often recounts something a rabbi told him when he first began to study Judaism: that he loved being Jewish because it was so dramatic.

Facing his mortality, Douglas told me about sitting with his mother at the end of her life some 75 years ago. She held his hand and told him not to be afraid, that everyone dies. He had an extremely contentious relationship with his father, but he adored his mother and she adored him. “When my boy walks,” he remembers her telling her friends, “the earth trembles.”

Now when he walks, he trembles. He complains, but mostly with amazement that he is 100.

Several years ago I asked why he was studying the Bible at this stage of his life. It is the best book of stories in the world, he replied, then added, “At this point it is all about God, people and charity, and I have my doubts about God, but none about charity and people.”

Studying Judaism for years has softened him, but not dampened his drive to know more, and do more. It has turned him outward to the world. That same day as I was leaving he walked me to the door and said, “Come back soon. The sun is setting and there is still a lot to learn.”

The Am Ha’aretz

In Jewish parlance, an unlearned person is called an “am ha’aretz” — literally, people of the land. Often this term is used disparagingly, to indicate someone ignorant, as opposed to a chacham, a learned, wise person.

Judaism famously values study and learning and intellect. But in the story of Abraham, the founder of our people, there is the astonishing fact that he not once but twice, bows to “am ha’aretz” the people of the land (Genesis, ch. 23).

Abraham our forefather teaches a valuable lesson. He esteems everyone, learned and unlearned alike. Abraham does not slight those who are of a lesser station or intellect; he actually bows in respect. 

Our Rabbis teach, “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” Each human being has something to teach as each has something to learn. In a divided country, recognizing the lessons of the other is critical to bridging the many gaps between different groups. Respect is not reserved for one type of personality or accomplishment. There is no deeper wisdom than to seek wisdom from everything and everyone God has made.

What Are You Worth?

There are different kinds of worth. This is illustrated in the old story of an entrepreneur who approaches a fisherman with an idea for a business. He can sell his catch for a higher price, buy a bigger boat, franchise, make a fortune and live a life of leisure. “What would I do with all that money and leisure?” he asks. “Why, you can spend your life lazing in a boat, fishing!”

The Chofetz Chaim is quoted as observing that “People say ‘time is money.’ But I say, ‘money is time.’ Making enough to live extravagantly costs precious hours of life and I don’t have enough time for that.”

Money is not an absolute value, but how we make it and spend it reflects our values. In the Talmud we are told that a man sent Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi a priceless pearl. In return the author of the Mishna sent him a mezuzah. When the man complained Rabbi Yehuda said, “You have sent me something I have to protect; in return I sent something that will protect you.” Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was a very wealthy man, and not averse to generosity. But he was teaching something about the scale of values. It is a lesson that has not gone out of style.



Do you know when to bow? When to stand up?

Do you avoid synagogue because it is alien?

You’re an immigrant.

Not to the US of course, but to Jewish prayer.

I realized this many years ago when I saw how immigrants to the United States felt uneasy, worried they were doing or saying something foolish, something against the mysterious rules silently cultivated by every society. And they also realized that other people thought they were stupid simply because they couldn’t speak the language. English speakers would speak loudly and slowly, as if that would close the gap. 

Yes, we are all immigrants somewhere. If you step out of your house you will one day feel ill at ease. Remember that the next time you see an immigrant. Or you see someone who walks into the synagogue, tentative and bewildered. 

Imagine you were the immigrant — how grateful would you be for the host who says “It’s ok. We all had to learn. We all come from and come to. Join us. You’ll see — It’s your home, too.”

Religion and Money

Can we talk money? I mean, religion and money.

Every religious organization I know has to raise money. Synagogues raise money all the time, because dues, high as they may seem, never cover the expenses of the synagogue. Yet people feel that having to pay money to pray to God is unseemly.

So synagogues dance around the issue. They speak of “pledges” and “resources” and “Tzedakah” and “contributions.” They ask those who come week after week but do not join, because they do not wish to pay, to “participate.” They use a minyan of euphemisms to avoid saying the plain truth — shuls need money. They need it for salaries, for books, for lights, for guest speakers, for activities, for property — in order to exist. 

People who use the synagogue but do not pay what they can are at times offended when you ask them. Instead, all those who do pay should be offended at others who think that taking without giving is Jewishly acceptable. It is not. It is selfish and unJewish.

Israel raised money to build the ancient Temple and we raise money to build the modern one. It is not a dirty or profane activity but a sacred and noble endeavor. So be a mensch — give.

The Spirituality of Shoes

Although the morning blessings are now recited in synagogue, originally each was tied to a morning activity. The blessing “who opens the eyes of the blind” was said when we first opened our eyes. “Who clothes the naked” was when we dressed, and so forth.

“Who has provided me with all my needs” was recited when tying shoelaces, beautifully explained by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch. He said that shoes indicate self-reliance. By contrast, when individuals in the Bible stand on sacred ground, they are told to take off their shoes, for to be barefoot is a sign of dependence.

Each morning we go from a vulnerable state, that of sleep, to a state where we are expected to aspire and accomplish. Perhaps that is one reason that the Talmud teaches: “A person should sell the very roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet (Shabbat 129a).” To walk with confidence is a gift for which we thank God every morning.

The Spinning Sword

When God exiles humanity from the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible, God stations a spinning sword at the mouth of the garden. That sword prevents humanity from reentering the garden.

Back in 1927, slightly more than a decade before the worst catastrophe in human history, Rabbi Israel Leventhal preached a sermon about that sword. He said that indeed the sword continues to prevent human beings from entering the garden: “Civilization and the sword cannot go hand in hand.”

Rabbi Leventhal could not know the tragedies that the sword would create over the century following his words. Still today there are many human beings who are enchanted by the sword, and who make this world, which might be a garden, a vale of tears and travail.

The Rabbis tell us that God sent both the book and the sword down from heaven, saying: “You can choose one or the other, the book or the sword.” In an age when we have grown our knowledge and expanded our technology of life, the sword in all its manifestations continues to threaten the continuation of the book. May our children’s world choose more wisely than the world faced by our parents.