Off the Pulpit


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What I Learned From the Evil Woman Next Door

When I was a child we lived next door to a very evil woman. At least, that’s what my brothers and I believed. We knew she was evil because when a ball we were playing with sailed over the fence into her yard, she always refused to return it. She was apparently upset that balls from the neighbor’s kids kept landing, splat, right in the middle of her carefully cultivated garden. 

What my brothers and I did not say is, “Here is a probably nice enough woman who is particularly sensitive about her garden.” In other words, we were kids, and we didn’t do nuance. She was bad, and that was that.

Such radical judgments are appropriate for children. By the time we are adults, however, we ought to be able to see virtue in people we disagree with or even dislike. When I hear liberals demonized by conservatives or conservatives demonized by liberals I think sometimes of our neighbor. Is half the country really stupid, evil and boorish? Is there no room to understand the merit of those who disagree? If you have changed your own mind on something important then you know how someone as smart and sensitive as you can think differently. How about together we tend our garden?

Wanting What You Want

The mind does not obey itself. My arm will rise if I ‘tell’ it to, but I cannot want what I think I should want. Shelves of self-help books promise to make us desire less junk food, exercise more, release ourselves from obsessive love for the wrong person, renew our affection for the ‘right’ person. But still, we cannot seem to want what we want to want. 

This problem is as old as humanity. When the Psalmist asks God to direct his heart, he is expressing the same frustration: I know I should want good things, so why do I find myself wishing for things that will do me ill?

Judaism’s response is in line with modern science — m’toch shelo lishma, bah lishma. If you practice even without much motivation, enthusiasm will follow. The spirit is the same as ‘fake it till you make it.’ Instead of willing yourself to have a change of heart, shape your habits for your heart. Joy comes after the smile, not the smile after the joy. Practice kindness even when you don’t feel like it and you will discover a softening of your character. As the Talmud tells us, God leads us in the path we wish to go. Start walking.


The Mystery of Meaning

In the Jewish tradition a desecration of God’s name is called a “Hillul Hashem.” R. Chaim of Volozhin teaches that ‘Hillul’ comes from the word ‘Hallal’ meaning empty or void. The greatest desecration of God’s name is to believe the world is meaningless, without purpose. 

Each morning in the service we say that the advantage of the human being over the beast is nothing, “ki hakol havel” — for all is emptiness. The prayer echoes Ecclesiastes, with its refrain that in the face of death all can be seen as empty or vain.

But following a suggestion from Rabbi Simon Greenberg, we should translate “ki” in the morning prayer as the Sim Shalom prayer book does, meaning “when.” Then the prayer teaches that we are no better than beasts when we see everything as empty or vain. If we do not understand that the world is meaningful, that our actions matter, then we ultimately live empty lives.

The deepest wisdom is not knowing your exact purpose in this world, but knowing that you do indeed have one. The conviction that God placed you here for a reason is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name.

Worlds of Childhood

One of childhood’s great pleasures is to populate the world with imagination. It does not require elaborate equipment to engage a child. As the Italian poet Leopardi said, “children find everything in nothing; men find nothing in everything.” 

Increasingly however, we are putting adult toys in children’s hands. Instead of filling the world with their own images they are presented with characters on screens, entertainment made by adults to hypnotize the attention of children. In place of a quiet and waiting world to be filled with the genius of young fantasy, there is a busy, buzzing, multicolor display ready to do their inventing for them.

The many blessings of technology aside, it often overrides our own imaginations. For children this means that the world is not created but presented to them. And childhood should be about world making.

The prophet’s Messianic vision is that the lion will lay down with the lamb, and a little child will lead them. Today that child would first have to power down. Unless of course, she was surrounded by adults wise enough to do it for her. Let’s relearn how to encourage children’s innate artistry to spring to life.

The Valley of the Shadow

After the death of Aaron’s sons, God instructs Aaron on various rituals, including the atonement ritual on behalf of the people. There are three important lessons about grief in this juxtaposition. 

  1. You must return to the world. The Seudat Ha’avarah, the meal of passage, that follows shivah, is intended to begin the reclamation of the mourner. In the words of the 23rd Psalm, wewalk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not stay there.
  2. Doing something for others can help you both forget your own trouble and remember that grief is universal. Aaron was instructed on atonement for all, knowing that sin and suffering were not his alone, despite the depth of his anguish.
  3. God does not stop speaking because our lives become dark. Through Moses, God instructs Aaron, both reminding him of the family that remains and of the Divine voice that still believes Aaron has a mission in this world. A sense of purpose and a sense of spirit can outlive loss.

Some losses are impossible to imagine for anyone who has not endured a similar tragedy. But we need not understand to help. Gently the mourner is coaxed back into life with purpose and a sense of God’s continuing presence in our beautiful but broken world.

Make ‘Em Laugh

Humor is the balancing pole of the tightrope of life, and Jews have always used humor to remain upright. So for example, the Talmud teaches that if a fledgling bird is found fifty cubits within a man’s property, it belongs to the owner of the property. If it is outside fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. A reasonable law, surely. 

Along comes Rabbi Jeremiah and asks a question that actually got him thrown out of the academy: “What if one foot is within fifty cubits and one foot is outside fifty?” I can just imagine the Rabbis in the next seats giggling as he asked. 

Humor goes all the way back to the bible, where some scholars argue that the book of Jonah is a satire. In a world where prophets give long speeches and no one repents, Jonah gets an entire city to repent with six words, is swallowed by a fish, and the book ends with the question whether a compassionate God should not save repentant human beings “and also much cattle?” Pretty funny.

What other tradition that has a patriarch named ‘laughter’ (Isaac)? I like to think our ancestors have always laughed, always joked, always understood that to be serious is not be solemn, and a sermon should have a smile.


On Fire

“So Moses said, ‘I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.’ When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!'”  

Our Rabbis teach that Moses was distinguished by being the first who noticed the bush on fire but not turning to ashes. Only when God saw Moses turn aside does God call out. For some the burning bush is a metaphor of faith, that we should be on fire but not consumed. It also reminds us that Moses, who was passionate for justice, noticed when things in the world were burning. 

All around us things are aflame but we too easily turn away. There are lives around the world that are ravaged by war and cruelty and deprivation. There are people close to us who are desperate and frightened and alone. We shield our eyes, turn the corner or the channel; we mouse-click them away. Moses insists on the lesson of attention.

To care for our world means to see not only its beauty, but also its pain. Perhaps if we looked as Moses did, we too would hear God’s message through the fire.

Pour Out Your Wrath

After drinking the third cup of wine at the Seder, we open the door for Elijah and speak harsh words, asking God to pour out wrath on those who have devastated Jacob and laid waste to his dwellings. 

Some are uncomfortable with these verses. Yet they are important for at least two distinct reasons. 

First, we owe a legacy of anger to the past. The Jews who suffered for generations deserve our indignation for everything they endured. Our own good fortune does not cancel their anguish, and their right to anger that we express on their behalf. Out of all the centuries of persecution, these are a few verses taken from the Bible, traces of pain added to the Haggadah in the middle ages at a time of great suffering and sorrow. That is a remarkable act of restraint; we should honor it instead of pretending it is not there.

Second, Judaism has always recognized that evil in the world must not only be reasoned with, but fought. The reality principle applies: sometimes wrath and rifles are more potent tools for peace than optimism and prayer.

I’ll make a deal with you — if Elijah walks in when you open the door, you can skip them. Otherwise, speak the words for those who can no longer speak for themselves.


All In One Meal

You can find almost every important Jewish value in one ceremony, the Passover Seder: 

1. The story — The story of our people, biblical, rabbinic and beyond, retold through the generations, always with new interpretations. 

2. Food — When the prophet Elijah is stranded in the wilderness and an angel comes to comfort, what does the angel say? “Eat something!” (I Kings, 19:5). No Jew without food.

3. Children — The Seder is taken from the past and points toward the future. It is a clebration with children always in mind, from the opening words to the closing song. 

4. Prayer — Filled with prayer and praise of God, the “Seder” recalls the Siddur, the prayer book, which brings us to our next value:

5. Book — The meal is built around a book, because words, study, and learning are the bedrock of our tradition.

6. Questions — Filled with questions, the Seder reminds us how much there is to discover.

7. The Land and The Future — Always pointed toward Jerusalem and a better day, the Seder leaves us with hope, and reassures us with faith.

Found in Translation

Ours is the age of translation. There are more Jewish texts available in English than in any language at any time in history. Not only are Hebrew and Aramaic texts translated, but also works in Yiddish, Ladino, German, French, and the countless other languages Jews have spoken throughout the centuries. 

From beginning we were a polyglot people. It is part of the condition of exile. Moses was raised speaking Egyptian, in ancient times the Torah was rendered into Aramaic and Greek, and some words in old French are known because the medieval commentator Rashi uses them to illuminate phrases in the Torah and Talmud. A Jewish historian once remarked to me that no one can speak enough languages to do full justice to the history of the Jewish people. 

But even with translations, the key that unlocks the Jewish tradition is Hebrew. It is the original language of the Torah, and the best translation will fall short. When Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize novelist was in Israel his fellow Nobelist, S. Agnon, asked Bellow if his books were translated into Hebrew. Yes, replied Bellow. “Ah,” said Agnon, “then you are safe.” After more than three thousand years and counting, maybe Agnon’s right.