Off the Pulpit


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Cheap But Precious

In a Talmud seminar Talmud with Prof. David Weiss Halivni we once came across a misquotation from a well known Talmudist. When we questioned Prof. Halivni, he asked us in turn how many had complete sets of Talmud in our homes. We all raised our hands. How many had two, or three? Several kept our hands up. “Well,” he said, “this man did not have an entire set in his town. He quotes from memory.”

There was a time in human history when material for learning was scarce and precious. Now it is ubiquitous. It is difficult for a new generation to imagine the reverence that once greeted the acquisition of a book or the avidity with which we used to sort through used book stores to find a treasure we had heard of but never seen.

Yet the availability of learning should not actually make acquiring knowledge any less valuable. As famed Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore writes in his novel, Farewell my Friend: “I shall recognize a real jeweler in the man who knows the worth of a jewel even when he gets it cheap.” Knowledge may come cheaper these days, but knowing is still priceless.

How Serious Is Your Problem

Years ago I read a brilliant anecdote about George S. Kaufman, prize winning playwright: On the TV show “This Is Show Business” the youthful singer Eddie Fisher complained that girls refuse to date him because of his age. This was Kaufman’s reply:

“Mr. Fisher, on Mt. Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to 24 times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was surpassed in the world of astronomy until the construction of the Mount Palomar telescope, an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to improvements in optical technology, the Mount Palomar telescope is capable of magnifying stars to four times the magnification of the Mount Wilson telescope. Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.”

Now and then when I complained of something trivial my grandfather would say “THAT you call a problem?” Part of maturing is calibrating our complaints, learning which are significant and which aren’t. Of course some problems will disappear as we get older: Fisher eventually married five times, including to Elizabeth Taylor.

The Grandparent’s Blessing

A grandfather solves the most troubling problem of the first book of the Torah.

From the beginning there have been clashes between brothers: Cain and Able, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Sometimes the clashes are sparked by parents, at other times the siblings themselves build resentments.

Now Joseph is in Egypt with his brothers. On his deathbed Jacob, Joseph’s father, calls Joseph and his sons Menasseh and Ephraim. Jacob tells Joseph he intends to adopt them as his own, but of course, they are really his grandchildren. It is the first interaction of a grandparent and a grandchild we read about in the Torah. And what does the grandfather do? He blesses them.

He gives the younger the greater blessing, an act which has sparked hatred before. Yet this time it causes no discord. The elder Menasseh accepts the lesser blessing. Perhaps the dynamic is different when a grandparent blesses, or perhaps after a lifetime of strife Jacob knew to bless both children together. To this very day parents on Friday night offer the blessing of Ephraim and Menasseh. Many do not realize it is the grandparent’s blessing. Grandparents have a special role, to be like Jacob – to be a blessing.

Mrs. Maccabee

Hanukkah is made memorable largely by the latkes, the dreidel, the songs and the jelly donuts – the atmosphere of the holiday. Distinguished from the Hanukkiah that we light in the window, these are a matter of custom, not of law. Much of Judaism relies on customs that create the ‘feel’ of things, an atmosphere in the home which was shaped throughout our history by mothers.

In an age when women and men both have communal positions, we should be mindful of how women influenced Jewish life when their public voices were not heard. The formative first years of education were the domain of the mother. Hanukkah, like Pesach, like Shabbat, was created as much in the kitchen as the study hall.

We are blessed to live in an egalitarian age. But each time we eat ‘traditional’ foods, we are honoring generations of devoted women who shaped and sustained our tradition. Although we lack books recounting the details of their days, our own lives are tributes to their vision and passion. I don’t know much about Mrs. Maccabee, but she must have been a remarkable woman.


“NO” In Thunder

When I speak to high school students, I tell them that the only word that gives you freedom is ‘no.’ The one who cannot say ‘no’ is a slave.

Both boys and girls (especially the latter) are socialized to believe they are responsible for the other person’s feeling and therefore must always say ‘yes.’ Otherwise you are being contrary, disagreeable or unkind. But if you cannot say ‘no’ your ‘yes’ has little meaning – it is not affirmation but coercion. In this spirit Emerson wrote in his journals, “I like the sayers of No better than the sayers of Yes.” He was not against affirmation; he was for freedom.

Every request is a demand on your time, you attention, your resources. Every yes means saying, even if implicitly, ‘no’ to something else. So say it out loud:Melville wrote Hawthorne in a letter that he admired him for saying “NO! in thunder.”

The courage to say no when others are saying yes (and indeed at times, to say yes when others are saying no) is essential to living one’s own life. Do you wish to be yourself? Learn to say ‘no.’ As the Kotzker Rebbe taught, if I spend my life being someone else, who will be me?

More Polarized Than Ever?

Remember the days of old; consider the years of past generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you, your elders, and they will teach you.” (Deut. 32:7). We need the historical awareness the Torah recommends.

Are we really “more polarized than ever?” There was a time when congressmen (no women) would arm themselves with clubs and knives, before the civil war. Oh, and there was a civil war. Closer in time, in 1968, there were terrible assassinations, a horrific war, the withdrawal of a President from public life, shooting of college students by the national guard, and a political convention that almost exploded.

After two world wars and a communist regime that enslaved almost half the world, we have emerged. Troubled to be sure, but also making progress in areas of disease, poverty and equality. There is much to be done, and criticism is always valuable, especially when informed by an understanding of how we got here.

Sometimes it seems the only historical analogy one hears is World War II. A lot happened in human history apart from Nazis. Long ago Moses exhorted us to learn it. Heeding his wisdom will deepen the discus

Why Did He Do That?

I would like to speak in favor of the most endangered resource in our public lives: the assumption of good intentions.

Throughout my rabbinate I have found myself in disputes, sometimes as a moderator and sometimes as a party to the dispute. They have ranged from public issues to family fights to events in the synagogue. I have always been tempted – and seen others tempted – to assume that the person who disagrees with me must have less than pure motives. It is as if we are programmed to assume disagreement about sensitive matters is an insult, rather than an argument.

In public life we are deluged with anger at one another. Whenever I say this I will invariably evoke comments from people who will write me and say, “Yes, but Rabbi what THEY do is intolerable.” Might I gently suggest that if you feel this way you have missed the point? Listening begins with the assumption the other is worth listening to, and that is possible by assuming they are not purely malign and base. Dan L’kaf Z’chut – try to give someone the benefit of the doubt before you scream. If you do, they might listen to you, too.

The Quiet Patriarch

We know less about Isaac than any of the other patriarchs. In the major events of his life he is acted upon – being bound for the Akedah and having Jacob steal the birthright by fooling Isaac in old age.

But we are also told that he redug the wells of his father and never left the land of Israel. In other words, Isaac was the patriarch of consolidation, the one who ensured that the remarkable achievements of Abraham would not be lost. Jacob could wander, because he had, in the terms of modern psychology, a secure base.

Isaac is our model of unspectacular goodness. His name means “laughter.” He did not try to outdo his father or overshadow his son. He loved Rebeka and despite his inability to create harmony between his children, they both cherished him enough to set aside their quarrel and come together to bury him. Not every action of consequence is also an action of chaos or combustion. In an age of flash and noise, the quiet heroism of Isaac is an inspiration.

A Lesson On This Week’s Loss

This was a week of losses. The horrible shooting in Pittsburgh preoccupies all of us, and the question of how to respond. Yet another loss we suffered this week points the way.

In our community we lost Max Webb at the age of 101. Max survived multiple labor and concentration camps. He was a builder, a philanthropist, a one time dance instructor and a remarkably wise and sparkling human being. And I will never forget what he told me almost twenty years ago.

Having moved into a condo, Max one day approached me and asked how the condo was. You know, I told him, I have lived there for almost two years, and there was still so much to do! Max put his hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes and said, “Listen – Jews are never done.”

So to our friends – and our enemies – all over the world, we say this – we will mourn our dead and defend our rights. Because Jews, as Max taught us, Jews are never done. 


Eat Quietly???

Recently in Japan I had lunch at a Zen Temple (the all-vegetarian cuisine was outstanding). My friends and I were seated next to one another. One of the adepts explained that we were not across from each other to discourage conversation. People were supposed to concentrate wordlessly on their food.

I thought of my family’s Shabbes table, or indeed any table, weekday or Shabbat, breakfast, lunch or dinner. The only silence was due to my mother’s unaccountably insisting that we not talk when our mouth’s were full of food. Otherwise it was a circus of volubility: jokes, questions, emphatic answers, smug corrections, resigned admissions, stories, stories, and stories. The idea that we should be quiet during the meal would have met with raucous laughter. It would have been as incomprehensible as not whispering to one another in shul.

Judaism has a place for silence, of course, an honored one. But far more of the tradition seeks to capture the world in a web of words. The Rabbis tell us that a table should always be adorned with words of Torah. In the spirit of my tradition I leaned over to the Japanese woman sitting next to me and said, “In that case, I’d make a lousy monk.”