Off the Pulpit


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Division And Love

In the seven days of creation, the second is distinguished by not being called “good.” Why is that?

According to one commentator, it is because on the second day God separated the waters (Gen. 1:6). It is one thing to separate light from darkness, since both cannot serve together. But waters are the same substance, and to introduce division in the two things that are the same cannot be called good.

We live in a time of deep divisions between like: between Jews, between Americans, between civilizations. In the story of creation, the Oneness of God superintended the divisions and made ultimate unity possible. Now it is our human task to heal, to reach across divides, to believe in the common goodness and humanity of others.

Once the Ba’al Shem Tov was told by a father that despite all the love he had lavished on his son, his son had gone astray. How, asked the father, should he react to the division? The Ba’al Shem Tov answered: “Love him more.”

Animal Rights and Wrongs

Our treatment of animals is increasingly part of the public conscience. So let’s remember why, according to the Rabbis, Moses was chosen for leadership.

In the Midrash we are told: When Moses shepherded the flocks of his father in law Jethro, on one occasion a kid ran away and Moses ran after it until it came to a tree with a pool of water. The kid stood there and drank, and when Moses overtook it, he said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You must also be tired.” So he raised the animal on his shoulders and carried it back to the flock. Witnessing this display of mercy, God chose Moses as the leader of Israel.

Kindness to animals is an index of the moral health of an individual and a society. All living things are worthy of decent treatment. The Talmud admonishes us to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. And for those who will not go all the way to vegetarianism, kosher slaughter is intended to minimize pain to the animal. As the Psalmist says (145:9), “God has compassion on all God has created.” Surely we should too.


Why is it so hard to forgive? We have each committed sins, we all need to be forgiven, yet for many who have been hurt, it is a great struggle to forgive.

One reason is that to forgive means giving up one’s superiority. As long as I bear a grudge I am better than you — you hurt me, you acted badly, and I am more moral and kinder than you are. But if I forgive you, truly forgive you, then I must restore moral parity; I am no better than you. We are equal again.

Therefore we are not supposed to remind others that we forgave them. Reminding someone of your own magnanimity is rescinding the essence of forgiveness — it is over, all is balanced, and the hurt is in the past. 

The new year is a chance to renew our commitment to forgive those who have wronged us. Not only does a grudge poison the one who holds it, but true largeness of soul is reflected not in the need to feel oneself better, but to help others feel restored and renewed.

Searching In The Night

Yom Kippur is a full day but its spirit is captured by the night. Although the Kol Nidre prayer begins before the sun has set, when we walk out of the synagogue, the sky is dark and our souls are in the solitude of evening reflection.

The final hours of Yom Kippur, during the Neilah service, we anticipate the night to come. For as the sun is setting we grasp the last hours of repentance, our final chance to pray and chant and cry together with the community, seeking magic and feeling foreboding, as children do in the dark.

The night has touched our people; Abraham’s covenant was born at night, presaging the “night of watching” before the liberation from Egypt. As Yom Kippur closes we pray that the searching we have done in the dark will illuminate the shadows in our souls and lead us to better lives. The spirit of Neilah is well captured in these lines by the English poet Auden: “Dear Children, trust the night and have Faith in tomorrow, That these hours of ambiguity and Indecision may be also The hours of healing.”


The New First Day

On Rosh Hashana we celebrate the creation of the world and ten days later, on Yom Kippur, we recite Yizkor, a prayer of memory for those we have lost. It might seem that we go right from joy to sadness, but there is a lesson in the linkage that can help us in difficult times.

What is the beginning of creation? “Let there be light.” Creation happens against a background of darkness. In order to make something in this world you must insist on light even when all the world seems sunk in night.

On Yizkor, we do not only mourn for those who died. We promise to give tzedakah in their memory and to honor the ideals by which they lived. Having learned the lesson of creation, we understand — you must create light from the darkness. Someone will be helped because I remember. Sadness will not be the final statement.

In a world beset by pain, the Jewish approach is neither to ignore tragedy nor to give it the last word. We grieve, but then we move toward the Neilah service, when sins are forgiven and another year dawns for us all. And there will be evening and morning, on this new first day.

Lessons Of The Marketplace

The Torah teaches in rapid succession that if you see someone’s sheep or ox astray, you should return it. If you see someone trying to raise their fallen ox, you should help them. Don’t take the eggs of a bird in front of its mother. And when you build a house, put a railing on the roof so no one falls (Deut. Ch. 22). 

TIn other words, empathy. Imagine how your neighbor feels having lost his sheep. Or how he feels trying to raise an ox by himself. Or how a mother bird might feel watching her young taken. Or what you will feel like endangering another in your own home.

We don’t usually think of empathy in laws of home building or commerce. But actually in a deep way capitalism depends on empathy too. You cannot create a successful product without understanding the consumer. You cannot market it without speaking the same language as the people you sell it to. And you will not build a corporation without inculcating the values you hold dear. The Torah reminds us that ethics and empathy are all of a piece. What we practice at home we should carry to the marketplace.

Safari Blessing

During the Limmud South Africa conference I had a chance to go on a two day safari. The experience of seeing rhinos and elephants and lions and zebras outside of a zoo is exhilarating. But it is also a religious obligation.

The Jerusalem Talmud reminds us that we will be called to account for the pleasure we might have enjoyed but did not. Presumably the reasoning is that God has given us gifts and it is an expression of gratitude to enjoy them. The world is filled with magnificent and varied creatures; to see them and admire their grace is a tribute to the Creator of all things.

The story is told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that when he was old he told a student he was off to walk the alps. When they asked why he should undergo such an arduous task, he said, “I’m soon to come before God. When I do I know he will ask me — ‘So, Shimshom, did you see My alps?”

If we are lucky enough to have the chance to see and enjoy God’s world, it is not irreligious to do so. Quite the opposite — We are in the midst of a magnificent pageant of life. Enjoy the blessing and be thankful.

A Jewel Of Elul

In his youth the great scholar Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin was an indifferent student who decided to abandon his studies and go to a trade school. On the night he told his parents of his decision, the future Rabbi had a dream. He saw an angel holding a stack of beautiful books. “Whose books are those?” he asked. “They are yours,” answered the angel, “if you have the courage to write them.”

There is no end to beginning. Rabbi Akiba did not start to learn until he was 40, yet he became the most renowned of all the talmudic sages. Immanuel Kant, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the modern age, began writing the books on which his fame rests in his 50s. Grandma Moses began painting in her 70s; one of her canvases, “Fourth of July,” hangs in the White House

“To grow old”, wrote Martin Buber, “is a wonderful thing if we do not forget what it is to begin again.” We cannot do everything, but there are an infinite number of things we can still do.

At each moment in life, youth, middle age, old age, the world drops fruit at our feet. At the end of Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem, “The Prelude,” he sums up: “what we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how.” At every age there is loving and teaching others to love. With those possibilities, how can one speak of ending?

The Same, But Different

A lot depends on our similarities. Unless we worked the same way, all designs would fail, medicine be ineffective, and human society become impossible.

Yet we also affirm that each individual is unique. No two people look, think or act exactly alike. Both human sameness difference are profoundly true.

The Rabbis compared faces to minted coins. A king of flesh and blood, they said, stamps coins and they all look alike. The Divine stamps us and each is different. We are all still faces, but none is a copy.

Part of the wisdom of living is to keep each message in mind when you encounter the other. When you see a throng of people and everyone looks alike, remember that each is different. As the Talmud puts it, when you see a crowd of Israelites, bless God who knows secrets. Everyone has his or her own secrets and uniqueness.

Yet when you are dealing with a single person, remember that all have much in common. We all have fears and dreams and difficulties and sensitivities. It is the gift of our sameness that enables us to have empathy and create community. And it is the gift of our uniqueness that permits every human being to learn from one another.



We are all in favor of kindness, unity and accord. But let us pause for a moment to praise gruffness, disunity and argument. 

Mordecai Kaplan put it this way: “Who would want the prophets to have joined Dale Carnegie’s course in ‘How to win Friends?'” Kaplan’s point is that the prophet’s had to be contrary, difficult and at times antagonistic. They would have made poor diplomats and, truth to tell, if they were Rabbis the congregation would not have renewed their contracts.

Yet the prophetic message had to be delivered in a thunderous voice to arouse the people. There are times when only friction can generate the heat a situation requires. Pretending you are being blunt when you are being abusive or insulting is boorish. But understanding that the situation calls for directness is a legacy reinforced by the great straight talkers of our tradition, in a line running from Moses through the prophets. Sometimes a whisper must give way to a scream.

My father told me once of a Yiddish play where an actor enters a darkened stage, looks at the audience and simply yells, “Gevalt!”

The prophets would have understood.