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December


An Eye For Beauty


There are many different ways to understand beauty, of course, and Judaism often speaks of character attributes as beautiful. Yet despite the caution in Proverbs that beauty is vain, physical splendor too is acknowledged and prized in the tradition: Berachot 58b teaches us to offer a blessing when seeing a beautiful creature or a beautiful tree.

When concluding study of a tractate of Talmud, we say “hadran aloch” – we will return to you. The same root that means ‘return’ can mean “beauty.” Beauty is a durable quality, something that can give delight again and again.

Beauty is attributed to the natural world and to men as well as women. For an example of the aesthetic eye of our Sages, read this magnificent depiction of physical beauty: “One who desires to see Rabbi Johanan’s beauty, let him take a silver goblet as it emerges from the crucible, fill it with the seeds of a pomegranate, encircle its brim with a chaplet of red roses, and set it between the sun and the shade; its lustrous shade is akin to Rabbi Johanan’s beauty (B.M. 84a).” Have a beautiful New Year.

End Goals and Goals Without End


There is a problem with the word “toldot.” It usually means children, or perhaps generations. But when the Torah says “These are the toldot of Jacob: Joseph” (Gen. ch 37) it does not list all of Jacob’s children.
 
There are two different kinds of life goals. One is achievable and has an ending. If your wish is to buy a certain house or to get a certain job, once it is accomplished your goal is complete. Many people, especially in mid-life, suffer a crisis less because they haven’t achieved their goals and more because they have, and the pursuit proved more satisfying than the attainment.
 
The second sort of goals has no end. Becoming a good person, building a relationship with a child rather than just having one, learning Torah – these are goals that do not have a clear finish line. You can spend your entire life seeking to be more educated and never be ‘done.’ Perhaps ‘toldot’ is intended to signal not Jacob’s achieved goal – the birth of children – but his continuing quest – shaping them into a people, Israel. Do not only seek goals you can achieve; seek goals that you are ever achieving and live without limits. 

The Right Kind Of Silence


The Talmud tells the story of Rav Safra, who was offered a price for some goods but could not respond as he was in the middle of prayers. The buyer kept upping the price. When Rav Safra concluded, he told the buyer he would accept the initial offer since his silence was misinterpreted, and he would have accepted the initial offer had he not been in the middle of prayer.
 
Rabbi Leo Jung told the story of the once formidable company Beer, Sondheimer and co. In 1870 just before the Franco-German war, Mr. Beer left his office for the Sabbath. His company had the copper and other metals the war ministry required and they sent a series of telegrams offering him more and more for his material, none of them answered because of the Sabbath. On Sunday morning, Mr. Beer returned to the office and said, recalling the precedent of Rav Safra, that he would accept the initial offer because they misinterpreted his silence.
 
The ministry was so impressed by his scrupulousness that they made his company the main supplier and so “established its global significance.” Sometimes doing the right thing turns out to be the right thing.

What’s In The Forest


In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob runs away from home and has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Upon waking he exclaims: “There is God in this place and I did not know it.” 
 
The most common explanation of Jacob’s words is that he did not know that God was in the place where he lay, that God was everywhere – the young man is discovering for himself that religious truth. But we might also understand him to be talking about his internal place. In a time of displacement, or fear, or simple confusion, he discovers God, and did not know that God was manifest when he felt himself in such a state. 
 
When the Chasidic master the Seer of Lublin was a boy he would go into the forest. One day his father, concerned, asked why he went there. The boy answered, “to find God.” His father smiled and said, “But my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” “Yes,” said the boy, “God is. But I’m not.”
 
All of us discover different parts of ourselves in different places. There is place inside us where God dwells, waiting to be discovered. 

Thanksgiving


The first words we say in the morning are “Modeh ani”– I am grateful. When the Amida is repeated the prayer leader recites everything on behalf of the congregations save the modim passage — the prayer of thanks. Our lives are filled with blessings to recite — over food, over experiences, over nature, over one another — and each is an expression of thanks to God.

Gratitude is not an expression of satisfaction: you can be grateful and still believe that things are broken. Being grateful is not a state reserved for the good times of life alone. It is a disposition, not a judgment of your situation. We are grateful because we are alive, because each day unfolds with possibility, because to be grateful is to recognize how much in this world has been freely given to us even when things are tough.

Thanksgiving is a beautiful holiday in its spirit and accords with the deepest wisdom of the Jewish tradition. For all that God has given us, for the sun of the day and the dark of night and our hope for tomorrow, we give thanks.

November


Inner-Directed Truth


Much of our kindness comes from fear — if I do not act this way another person or group of people will think less of me or be angry at me. This is not necessarily a bad motivation; we are social creatures and a ‘decent respect for the opinions of mankind’ is written into our founding document. But it is not the highest motivation either.

Kindness that arises from a sense of sympathy or of justice is stronger and surer. Abraham does not greet the strangers because he fears they will disdain this inhospitable nomad if he stays in his tent. Jeremiah does not berate the people because he thinks they will kick him out of the prophetic circles if he keeps quiet. Such figures are ‘inner directed’ — their heroism arising from a deep sense of right and wrong, of goodness unrelated to the judgment of others.

In an age when we are seen and rated and judged every minute of the day, when social media scores our souls and calibrates our characters, the Torah is a powerful corrective. How you stand before your own deep values and before God is higher than the passing opinion of your neighbor.

Self-Intoxication


Noah is often compared unfavorably to Abraham. When told the world would be destroyed, Noah did not protest. When told evil people in Sodom would be destroyed, Abraham sought to save them. The Torah says that Noah walked ‘with God.’ Abraham is told to walk ‘before God’ suggesting greater strength and self-reliance.

What is the source of the difference? The Torah teaches Noah was the first to plant vineyards and immediately became drunk on their product. He was intoxicated by the work of his own hands.

Abraham, according to the Rabbis, grew up as an apprentice in his father’s idol store. Yet he protested and recognized that idols were unworthy of worship. In other words, unlike Noah, he was not intoxicated by the work of his own hands. He kept God before him, and knew that what he made was not ultimate.

As our inventions grow more ingenious and more ubiquitous, Abraham’s lesson is more powerful than ever. So long as human beings are enamored with their own creations there is danger. If we do not allow them to control us, but worship the Creator above what we create, we will be true children of Abraham.

Be the Parent You Needed


“As a mother comforts her child so will I comfort you (Is. 66:13).” Images of God as a mother and as a father do not only teach us something about God; they teach us something essential about ourselves. 
 
There is no more important resource to create a good society than good parents. People who have early experiences of cruelty or absence or indifference from parents often carry the scars their entire life. As a Rabbi I have repeatedly seen adults blocked at fifty by what they experienced at five. The echo of a cruel comment caroms in the memory for decades.
 
Parents do not need to be perfect. They need to be, as the psychologist Winnicott famously wrote, “good enough.” The High Holidays emphasize the Sovereignty of God, but when we recite “Avinu Malkenu,” the title “father” comes first. The blessing of a good enough parent is immeasurable; the damage of a bad one is deep.
 
When Friday night comes, bless your children. Encourage them. Comfort them. If you were badly treated, be the pivot that turns to kindness for the generations to follow. Be the parent you needed when you were a child. 

Harmonies


By 1815 Beethoven had avoided society for many months, yet he agreed to play his 27th sonata at the behest of Antoine and Therese Apponyi. The orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall records the scene in his memoirs. The Embassy was filled with eminences of the day: Goethe, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others.

Beethoven was almost completely deaf. Despite an enormous ear trumpet he could not hear the sounds of his own notes but heard them in his head and so began the sonata, composed a few months earlier, with deep feeling and expression. But the heating had thrown the sound of the piano off key and the great composer cannot hear the distortions. Unease spreads throughout the room at the cacophony and although there is some applause, Beethoven will never play in public again.

Each of us brings our internal music to the world. At times we discover sadly, that to others it is unwelcome, even dissonant. Life nonetheless demands that we continue to play and refine our harmonies. Beethoven no longer performed but did not stop composing. There is a palace, the Zohar teaches, that opens only to song. Perhaps in time, like the 27th sonata, our melodies will be heard, they will unlock gates and they will endure.

October


Why A Messiah?


What is the purpose of a Messiah? Let us remind ourselves again of an answer written in an era of intolerance and hatred, the middle ages, from a man whose family fled the Almohad persecutions in Spain and settled in Egypt:

“The sages and prophets did not long for the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come.

In that era there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. Blessings will be abundant, comforts within the reach of all. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. Hence Israelites will be very wise, they will know the things that are now concealed and will attain an understanding of their Creator to the utmost capacity of the human mind, as it is written: ‘For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11:9).”

So wrote our teacher, Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204