Off the Pulpit


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No More Miracles

All of the Torah points to arriving in the land of Israel. How is that grand arrival announced? Right before the conquest of Jericho, in Joshua, (5:11,12) we read: “On that day when they ate the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna.” 

That is the grand declaration. No fanfare. You are in the land because food no longer drops from the sky. You know you’ve arrived when the miracle is over.

Of course there are other miracles to follow in the Tanach. Nonetheless the message endures: once you inherit the land of Israel you must grow your own food, fight your own battles and build your own cities. The results will be imperfect, but they will be yours.

Manna never came again. From the moment we left the desert Jews have had to face the world with courage, wit, tradition and faith. Jewish history taught us how many wonders can be fashioned by passionate hearts and skilled hands. So once again we can eat the produce of the land, knowing that modern Israel was not built with miracles, but its building is a miracle.

Measuring A Life

A little over a year ago my daughter told me how my Apple iPhone counts my steps each day 

I had lived in blissful ignorance of this invention. Now I check my steps, wonder whether I should have more steps, worry on Shabbat (when I do not carry my phone) how many steps I am ‘missing” and generally have found an entirely new field to uselessly obsess over. 

We measure everything about our lives these days — not only calories but our cholesterol, our heart rates, our income; we are subjected to an endless stream of poll numbers and surveys quantifying attitudes and opinions. We are inundated with data.

Yet there is no scale for tenderness or affection. You cannot calibrate kindness. No matter how sophisticated our instruments, there is no computation for creativity, for love, or for the depth of a human heart.

So take the stairs instead of the elevator and walk to the place you would otherwise drive. It is healthy and you will up your numbers. But remember that the success of a life is measured in those things we cannot measure.

Plus Ultra

All discovery creates new senses of possibility. The motto on the crest of Ferdinand and Isabella had been ne plus ultra — no more beyond. After Columbus discovered America, the ne was removed. Now the crest read: beyond this, more.  

When we discover a sense of God in our lives, a new dimension is opened up for us. Before there was a limit on reality, now it soars beyond anything we had imagined. Where there were walls, there is an intimation of sky. 

For Judaism the sacred is a realm that both permeates the everyday and extends far beyond it. Lighting a match is a simple act, but using that match to light a Shabbat candle gives it an everlasting dimension. Doing an act of kindness for another is a beautiful thing; recognizing it as a mitzvah adds an invisible vertical line stretching to eternity.

Ultimately faith is not something to be demonstrated like a scientific fact. Faith is experienced the way we feel love. Beginning in yearning, it is powerful in its discovery and infinite in its implications.

Absent Presences

In Torah class we are studying the Song of Songs. Verse 3:1 reads: “Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love. I sought but found him not.” Sometimes we feel another most keenly through absence. 

The French philosopher Sartre spoke about the absence of God using the analogy of waiting for someone in a café. As you fix on the door, waiting for your friend to come, you are more focused on her nonappearance than on the presence of all the other people who actually walk in the door. Similarly, said Sartre, God in absence sometimes feels more real than people in their presence. 

The grandson of Rebbe Baruch of Medziboz, was playing hide-and-seek. After waiting for a long time, he came out of his hiding place and ran to his grandfather crying. “I hid and no one looked for me.” The Rabbi, tears in his own eyes, answered, “That’s exactly what the Almighty says: ‘I hide and no one looks for Me.'”

Many people feel God is missing without considering that in the absence itself, you may be sensing the presence of God.

Yes, You Do Judge People

How often do I hear people praised for not judging others? I know the point — such people are not harsh, they are not unkind, they do not judge character by reckoning irrelevancies. But there is no merit in not judging; rather there is great merit in judging fairly and kindly.

“We must be courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light.” So wrote Emerson. We all judge: this person is more worth spending time with than that one. This individual is more skilled, more humorous, more insightful, less nasty, less prone to gossip. Saying we do not judge is a small lie intended to help us escape the responsibility for our judgments. One can no more estimate all people as equally meritorious than one can deem all food equally delicious.

Even when we judge the judgmental, we are judging. Each individual leaves the womb with preferences and goes to the grave wrapped in judgments. Instead of denying it, let us try to be generous in judgment, open to difference, and grateful for the chance to understand the endless variety of God’s creatures. 


An Ancient Lifeline

In Judaism, learning is part of piety. While the ideal of the simple righteous person exists in Judaism, far more common is the person whose reverence flows from erudition. A Talmid Chacham, a learned individual, is also assumed to be a good person.

Of course that is not always the case, but in Judaism the belief has long been that the more you know, the better you will be. Ancient historian Arnaldo Momilgiano observes: “In Athens and Rome thinking about religion usually made people less religious, among Jews the more you thought about religion the more religious you became.” Study was indispensible to growing spiritually. So it was then and so it is today. The great question for Jewish survival is whether our children will learn. Jewish education may not quicken the philanthropic pulse like anti-Semitism or Israel, but as Rabbis taught, the future of the world “depends upon the breath of schoolchildren.” If our children do not breathe the air of our tradition, learn its language and its lore, we will fade away. To all our children adrift in the secular sea, we throw an ancient lifeline — a book.

Wake The Spirit

If you serve God in the same fashion as you did yesterday it is regression, taught the Hasidic master, the ‘Yehudi’ (Jacob Isaac ben Asher). “For a person is always in the aspect of becoming, and not standing.”

Much of life is about mastery of routine. We learn from the time we are young how to accomplish certain tasks without thought. The danger is that routine takes over our spiritual life as it takes over the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the route we take to work. Remaining alive inside is to be an ever growing soul; in the life of the spirit, stagnation is death.

Spontaneity is one means of renewal, but so is effort. Not everything in religious life is easy, because ease is often the road to routine. Vary your reading, your ritual, your prayer. Learn more, reflect more, do more. All of us should remember the Yehudi’s words, that we are to become, not simply to stand.

As the poet wrote, “Up lad, when the journey’s over, there’ll be time enough to sleep.”

God Is Not Your Business Partner

The first chapter in the bible in which God’s name does not appear is the 23rd chapter of Genesis. The chapter recounts the negotiations that Abraham strikes with Ephron to buy Me’arat haMachpela, the land on which Sarah and Abraham and their descendents will be buried.

This is the first parcel of land that a Jew purchases in Israel. Perhaps the Torah is offering a subtle lesson. Why is God’s name not mentioned? When it comes to commerce, land and politics, people invoke God, usually to justify whatever position they would have taken anyway, but the Torah is more honest. This is a secular transaction on sacred land. God is not your business partner.

There is both beauty and poignancy in a burial ground being the first holding of a Jew in Israel. It emphasizes care, planning for the future and also presages some of the tragic fate of the Jewish people in Israel. We should always be ethical but not everything we do is godly. There is a division bein kodesh l’chol, between sacred and everyday activities. When we mix them, it is to the detriment of both faith and the secular world.

Fear, Love and Sacrifice

Our sages speak of both love of God and fear of God. Fear is more akin to awe. Think of the way people respond in a movie when they first see Godzilla or an alien: they are paralyzed for a moment with amazement that such a thing exists. Similarly, we should have a sense of awe, wonderment tinged by being overwhelmed, at the reality of God’s presence.

But of course equally present is the love that makes awe bearable. We are not only subjects of God’s love, but God’s eternal love — ahavath olam — as our prayers teach us.

This dual consciousness is evident in ancient sacrifices. On the one hand, taking a life evokes awe. We shudder in the presence of death. At the same time a sacrifice is called a korban, a coming close. To sacrifice for another expresses love and intimacy. Giving freely opens the heart of the giver.

In our day most Jews feel very far from the practice of sacrifice. Yet we should appreciate the deep meaning in its mystery: in one act the experience of awe and love are joined.


You Can Take it With You

As the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt, Moses remembers the promise to carry Joseph’s bones to the land of Israel (Ex. 13:9). The Rabbis note Joseph’s original double phrasing to his family: “Hashbeah Hishbiah” — ‘you shall surely promise’ — because the promise is to be carried down through the generations.

A commitment can be taken with you, from one age to the next, with a sense of continuity and sanctity. Indeed the oath sworn to Joseph does not end there. For Moses, who took upon himself the fulfillment of the task, would never have the privilege of entering the land of Israel. He had to trust those who came after would complete the undertaking that he had begun. The Talmud teaches that one who takes upon himself an obligation and fulfills it to the extent possible, even if unable to complete it, is credited with the mitzvah.

Every Jew is given the bones of his or her ancestors, the promise and the heritage, to carry forward. You cannot take material possessions with you after you die, but you can take the spiritual gifts of those who have died with you as you live.