Off the Pulpit


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A Sabbatical Farewell Message

For over twenty-five years I have written the weekly “Musings” column for The New York Jewish Week, which for more than a decade we have sent out as “Off The Pulpit.” Now, after some 1,300 weekly columns, I am taking a break. I will be on a six month sabbatical, traveling and writing, from January to June. I won’t be on e-mail or Facebook. A real break.

I plan to be back in the summer, but in the meantime, I would like to thank those of you who have read the column over the years and have occasionally written with suggestions, criticism, praise and corrections. I have discovered how easy it is to make mistakes, even in short columns. And I have also discovered the immense generosity of spirit of the readers, who frequently offer kind words and encouragement.

I aimed for the refrigerator. A triumph was a column that somehow ended up on a cork-board or a refrigerator. Of course, it is a little tough to tape your iPhone to the fridge, so, as of late, I have hoped to be forwarded to others.

The wisdom of the Jewish tradition is literally inexhaustible. When people ask about the inspiration to write each week, the simple answer is that it is all there, in the Torah, in the commentaries, in the vast sea of Talmud and Jewish literature. I know this will continue to nourish me as I hope it nourishes you, and I look forward to seeing you back next summer. In the meantime, here are two recent articles — one a NY Times review I wrote about whether the Exodus happened and why God no longer speaks to us, and the other for the Jewish Book Council on how Jews comment on one another. Please enjoy and have a restful and blessed new year. 

Judging Favorably

As a nation we suffer from imputing bad intentions. Too many people on the left assume that those on the right must be racist, and those on the right too often assume those on the left must hate America. We have never been more desperately in need of the simple wisdom of the Rabbis, to judge people favorably.

We can cherish certain values and defend them without thinking that people on the other side are venal or wicked. It is helpful to remember how often in life we have believed something we later decided was wrong; perhaps we were where someone else is standing now. Perhaps we will one day be there.

Social mistrust is corroding the coherence of our nation. When we learn to see people as we wish to be seen, as characters and not caricatures, everyone benefits. Try to get to know people who are unlike you, who disagree with you. You may discover a common passion, or even better, a simple common humanity. The Torah’s greatest teaching is that all human beings are in the image of God — even those without the simple good sense to agree with you. 

Welcoming The Stranger

Billy Wilder, legendary Hollywood writer and director of such classics as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like it Hot” was a refugee who left Germany for Paris as the Nazi party gained power. He made it briefly to America but had to leave and reapply. Wilder told the story of coming to the American Consul in Mexico, desperate to return to the U.S.
Wilder knew that many waited for years, others were never admitted. He was terrified. He explained that he had almost no documentation because it was all left behind. 
The Counsel asked him, ‘What do you do?’
‘I write movies,’ said Wilder.
‘Is that so?’ said the counsel. They stared at each other for a long time.
Finally the Counsel stamped his passport and said, ‘Write some good ones.’  
He did.
In a thousand small acts, an individual shows his heart and a nation shows its character. In a world that is driven by fear many open hands have closed into fists. Let us remember how important it is to also believe in the possibility of goodness and the power of welcoming the stranger. 

Does God Take Checks?

We live in an age of unprecedented wealth. Do we therefore live in an age of unprecedented charity?

Many studies have demonstrated that paradoxically, rich people give a much lower percentage of their income to charity than poor people. As wealth accumulates, giving does not usually follow suit. There are exceptions of course; but the rule seems to hold. 

For many people giving is a numbers game. Their livelihood will not be affected no matter how much they give. It is a matter of numbers on a page or a screen. Yet the psychological obstacles to generosity are real. Many who could give don’t simply because they feel an inexplicable sense of loss when giving away money they could easily spare.
“We have never seen nor heard of an Israelite community that does not have a charitable fund,” wrote Maimonides in the middle ages. Tzedakah is central to Jewish life. Or to put it in a story: Once a wealthy Jew came before God after death.  God asked, “I gave you so much. Why didn’t you give more to tzedakah?” The man answered, “Here, tell me what to give to — I’ll write a check!”
“I’m afraid not” God said. “Up here, we only accept receipts.”

Biblical Karma

Jacob fools his father Isaac, disguising himself as Esau and taking the blessing.

How does the Torah itself regard his action? The subtle critique can be found later on in Jacob’s story. He works for seven years to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel. At the end of that time however, he wakes up in bed next to Leah. The Rabbis imagine that when he upbraids Leah for conniving with her sister, she answers — “are there teachers without disciples?” In other words, you had it coming, buddy.

Jacob pretended to be his brother. He was deceived by Leah pretending to be her sister. He fooled his blind father by touch, and could not himself distinguish the feel of Leah from the feel of Rachel while blinded in the dark of night. The result in one case was that he benefitted from the blessing. In the other case, he had to work an additional seven years.

Our tradition calls this comeuppance, “middah k’neged middah” — measure for measure. It has affinities to the idea of Karma. There is a moral order to the universe, and sooner or later, what we do will affect what is done to us. Learning this helped Jacob grow into Israel. 


Methuselah and Me

Yes, I also read the health studies that advise eating this and avoiding that. I don’t always adhere to the recommendations but I follow them as if, well, as if my life depended on it.

At the same time, I know that you cannot savor life if I worry constantly about extending it. Living is not a contest for duration but a pageant of meaning. Grateful as I am for the drugs that put my cancer in remission, and the studies that made my eating healthier (sometimes), and the devotion of experts in all fields, I am also aware that everyone’s days are numbered and measured more in meaning than in minutes.

My father once told me he thought Methuselah was the saddest man in the Bible. Imagine, he said, living 969 years, bearing children, and not having a single accomplishment worth recording — not even that he was a good father to those same children. Not one single action that changed his world for the better. We who live for brief spans can do that each day. None of us is granted immortality but all of us can live in a way that touches eternity.

The First Teacher

“From the child of five to myself is but a step,” wrote Leo Tolstoy. “But from the new-born baby to the child of five is an astonishing distance.”

Modern research validates Tolstoy’s insight. The first years are formative. For most of history, the teacher in those early years was a child’s mother. Even though women were often voiceless in public, their influence was unparalleled in shaping the generations.

We see a clear example of this in the Torah. Abraham has several children. Isaac and Ishmael of course, but after Sarah’s death, he marries again and has six more children (Gen. 25:2). None of them carry on with their father’s belief in one God other than Isaac.

Even though all the children had the same father, only Isaac had Sarah as his mother. The Torah is making clear by telling us of Abraham’s children later in life that, much as we may admire Abraham, the Jewish line is determined by Sarah. Her early instruction and love shaped Isaac and the Jewish future. From Tolstoy to Torah the lesson is clear – beginning in the magic early years, a mother’s voice shapes our lives.

Decisions Shape Destiny

Why does the Torah so often tell the tales of siblings? From Cain and Abel, the Genesis stories and on to Moses and Aaron, we are being told something important about human nature.
Ultimately, our lives are shaped by our choices. Yes there are differences in families and circumstances; some people undoubtedly have a much more difficult road than others. Yet the Torah teaches that even when people grow up in the same family and have similar experiences and opportunities, who they become is who they choose to be. 
Everything, says the Talmud, is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven. In other words, your moral character and decisions are not a product of your environment but of your will. This is a message of empowerment. You can overcome the most difficult challenges if you believe in your own ability to forge your destiny.
Every human being is made in the image of God. Whether we honor that image or sully it, however, is not God’s choice. It is ours. We do not choose the blessings we inherit, but we do choose the blessings we become.


Poets, Martyrs, and Memory

Identity is largely memory. When asked who we are, we respond with the past — I am someone who was born here, worked there, is tied to this family and community. A painful effect of Alzheimer’s is that in wiping out memory, it erases identity as well.
What is true for individuals is true for a people. Jewish identity is shaped by Jewish memory. The less we know about who we were, the less we understand who we are.
Jewish memory includes tragedy of course, but there is much more to our tradition than catastrophe. We have been badly hurt, but we have also been greatly blessed. The faith, music, art, teaching, law, and legends of the Jewish people are integral to our self-understanding. We place a great emphasis on remembering the holocaust, and rightly so. But to remember tragedy and neglect Torah is to have a distorted identity as a Jew. Judaism is not solely what has been done to us; Judaism is far more what we have done. Our poets speak as loudly as our martyrs; if you would know who you are, listen to all the voices, and remember them. 

We Are Making Progress

Good is more laborious than bad. One wrecking ball can destroy a structure it took months to build; one driver can snarl traffic for hours in spite of thousands of good drivers; as Napoleon said to his brother, “Remember, it takes ten campaigns to create esprit de corps which can be destroyed in an instant.”

That is why we should marvel at the tremendous progress human beings have made. Yes, we have a million problems, and a single terrible war can wipe out centuries of advance (see the first sentence above). Nonetheless child mortality and extreme poverty have been cut in half in recent years and humanity’s ethical awareness has made remarkable strides forward.

Everyone acknowledges that we still have very far to go. But it matters to see how far we have come because inaction cannot be excused by: “it doesn’t make a difference anyway.” Indeed it does, and we can change the world — are changing the world – step by step. As Napoleon also said, “More battles are lost by loss of hope than by loss of blood.” Don’t lose hope – goodness is a battle worth fighting.