Off the Pulpit


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Throw That In The House!

Growing up in my parent’s home, there was only one thing that was permitted to be thrown inside the house — challah. 

Each Friday night after the blessing on the bread, my father would break up parts of the challah and throw it around the table. He began with my mother, who became very adept at snagging her piece. Some memorable catches were executed, as well as some incomprehensible misses. But by that simple gesture we began each Shabbat meal in an atmosphere of joy.

Religious ritual is often solemn. Solemnity has its place. Butsimcha shel mitzvah — the sheer exhilaration of the mitzvoth — can be the most potent of religious experiences. At the end of each Shabbat morning we bring the children up on the Bimah. They get to look out over the congregation and the parents get to see their kids along with all the other children attending the service. Is it a little chaotic? At times. But is it joyful? Always.

Judaism is not only serious when it is straight-faced. Whenever I feel myself getting unnecessarily rigid, I just remember the mischievous twinkle in my father’s eyes during the windup before the Shabbes pitch.

A Moment of Mourning

On Tisha b’Av, we are reminded of the destruction of the Temple and other tragedies in Jewish history. Ritual is both an aid to memory and an insistence that our sorrow be within limits. 

Shiva prescribes that the mourner must stay home for seven days, but only for those days. The walk around the block after shiva is a return to the world. The meal after the funeral begins this process; limitations on mourning are not suggestions. You are not permitted to say Kaddish after the designated time. Tisha b’Av is a fast day, but afterwards you are not to continue fasting. Judaism believes in memory and honors pain, but creates limitations to ensure that life is not about death, but about life.

In the midst of mourning, we envision salvation. We read Eicha, the book of Lamentations, on Tisha b’Av. Tradition ascribes the book to Jeremiah, who foretold and experienced the destruction, but also redeemed his ancestral land in Israel. “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, God of Israel: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be purchased in this land (32:15).” Jeremiah was a prophet; he knew mourning should not and would not last forever.

Your Neighbor’s Fire

The Roman poet Horace wrote, “it is your affair when your neighbor’s house in on fire.” For two kinds of people, it is of concern for two types of reasons. 

Some worry about the neighbor’s house being on fire solely because theirs might catch fire. Such people judge every social event in terms of how it might affect them. How will this policy touch upon my taxes, my school system, or my health care? Such a view is not wrong, but it is limited.

The second is the one who is also concerned because someone else is suffering. This is the person who evaluates the world not only through the lens of self-interest (for we all do that) but through the lens of the other as well. This is the Jewish attitude.

Hillel’s famous dictum, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” is followed immediately by, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel does not even know how to define a person who cares only for him or herself. Even if fire stops at the neighbor’s house, we should feel a bit burned too.


Shaped By The Deed

Judaism is often called a tradition of deed, not of creed. It is certainly true that Judaism emphasizes one’s actions. The Torah assumes that the heart will always be divided and no one can erase the negative thoughts or bad intentions that accompany us throughout our lives. We show our nobility not by being consistently pure in thought, but by choosing to act in accord with our higher ideals.

Action helps shape character. Habit is the means by which we bind ourselves. Even things unimaginable at one point in life can become habits later on: changes in exercise or diet are largely a function of sticking with something long enough that it grows to be who we are. Similarly we can become accustomed to prayer, to certain mitzvoth, to participating in community. Created by God, we then become self-creators, and our will joins hands with our habits.

When Israel spoke the words na’aseh v’nishma — we will do and we will hear, it was not simply a statement of faith but a statement about human nature. Our actions will shape our souls. By doing better we will grow to be better.

Stranger, Sibling, Self

Jacob fools his father and steals his brother’s birthright. Esau swears to kill him. Decades pass. Jacob hears that Esau is coming with 400 men. Yet when they meet, instead of vengeance, they fall on each other’s necks and weep. Why?  

My father pointed out to me many years ago that in the ancient world there were few if any mirrors. People did not see their own faces, except perhaps distorted in a pool of water. Suddenly both Jacob and Esau, who were twins, although not identical, see one another. What must they have felt?

I imagine that after all those years at first each saw a stranger, then a brother, then saw himself. The Torah is teaching is how to look at other people. First someone appears a stranger; then as a sister or brother; then we realize that they are very much like ourselves. They share our dreams and pain. In a world of terror and fear of the other, the lesson is more powerful than ever. Stranger, sibling, self. If we could only learn that ancient lesson, we might save the world.

The Best Among Us

In Jerusalem at the Sami Rohr book prize ceremony, the winners summarized what they had learned in writing the book. Yehuda Mirsky, author of a beautiful biography of Rav Kook, said movingly: “I was just astonished that such a person could exist. Someone at once so deep and so good.”  

His comment reminded me of the statement of famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger in his journals, that he didn’t believe in God but he believed in the Tzaddik, the righteous person. Yet a truly righteous person is a path to God; in our tradition God is manifested less in miracles and more through the actions of human beings. When we encounter someone of the stature of Rav Kook, his light reflects back above.

Sometimes it is harder to have faith in human beings than to have faith in God. Yet we are not only called to be good, but to see good. There are no flawless people and we do a disservice to the tzaddik when we pretend they are perfect. Let us be moved instead by the vision of a struggling human being who reaches heights and plumbs depths that can inspire us all with the souls that God creates.

Learning To Listen

In the Talmud we are told that Rav Eliezer ben Hyrcanos never taught anything that he had not heard from his teacher. Then in Avoth D’Rabbi Nathan we are told that “Rav Eliezer taught things that no ear had ever heard.” The two texts seem to contradict each other; so which is true? Did Rav Eliezer only repeat what he heard or did he innovate new teachings? 

The answer comes from Rav Kook. He wrote that Rav Eliezer in fact only taught what he had heard from his teacher, but he listened so carefully that he heard things no one else had. Listening carefully is also a way of innovating.

More than 2,000 years ago our Rabbis knew about active listening. Deep statements carry multiple levels of meaning. The one who pays attention comes away with a profoundly enriched understanding. In a world of constant communication we need to relearn the art of genuinely absorbing the written and spoken word. This is the theme of our central prayer declaration: Shma — Hear, O Israel. Our world is filled with inspiring and important messages and our tradition with teachings that can change your life. But you must listen to them.


The Tongue Set Free?

The most frequently cited sins in Jewish tradition are sins of speech. Some are direct, such as gossiping or slander. Others are indirect, such as embarrassing someone in public, which is usually a consequence of saying something callous or unkind.

As a result, shemirat halashon, guarding one’s tongue, is a powerful value in Judaism. In part this is because we recognize the potency of words. If I tell you something discreditable about another person, even if it is later disproved, I cannot force you to forget and the faint whiff of scandal sticks to their reputation, even if wholly undeserved. One of our greatest sages, the Chofetz Chaim, devoted much of his life to exploring and explaining the ins and outs of proper speech.

Why is it so hard to avoid negative speech? Because it so powerful. “He is a nice guy” does not have the punch of “He is a jerk.” But Jewish tradition reminds us that loose, cruel speech is wrong, whether done privately or publicly. I hope all around dinner tables in the Jewish world parents are explaining that whatever their political position, our sages are unanimous on the importance of dignified speech, and the destructive power of the tongue set free.

Without an Appendix

The great chess master Savielly Tartakower used to say that the winner of a game was the one who had made the next to last mistake. Note he did not say the one who makes the most brilliant moves. Tartakower knew that brilliancy depends on error. 

The biographies of successful people remind us of the prevalence of failure. Twelve publishers rejected the Harry Potter novels although they turned out to be among the best-selling books of all time. Steve Jobs may be remembered as legendarily successful but he was kicked out of Apple. While standing for election in 1922, Winston Churchill was stricken with appendicitis. He did not only lose — he finished fourth in the election and later wrote: “I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix.”

The conviction that failure is a step on the ladder and not a final destination is what makes for success. Weeping endures for the night but joy comes in the morning writes the Psalmist (30:5). Every striving life is strewn with mistakes, failures, difficulty and darkness. Our nobility is enduring each with the conviction that, as Emerson wrote: “I fail every day. Yet to victory am I born.”

Shaped By Wilderness

The three major Chagim, holidays, of the Jewish year — Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot — all commemorate deeds that took place in the wilderness. They have agricultural significance as well, tying them to the land, but their origin reminds us that we were shaped by the desert.   

The Rabbis say one must make oneself as open as the desert to receive Torah. A cramped and walled-in spirit cannot learn the way one should. Best for Torah study is an expansive and questioning mind. In the wilderness one sees not the products of human beings but the vast star studded sky at night and stretching sands during the day. The power of creation is apparent and palpable.

Finally, in the wilderness people have to rely on one another. The Israelites became a nation that learned to care for each other through the trials of the desert. Once they had liberated their minds, had experienced the grandeur or God’s creation and come to understand that they were on this journey together, they were ready to enter the land, and celebrate the holidays God had given.