Off the Pulpit


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A Yizkor Message

On Yizkor we gather to remember the ones we miss. The ones who knew our world. The one who grasped the corkscrew twists special to your own soul.

What we miss, and what we crave, is the intimacy that assures you in a world that spins no matter your wishes, that drives on heedless of your hopes, you are not alone.

That person – parents, spouse, sibling, friend, lover – to whom you tossed your heart the way as children we played egg toss – catch this, but move with it and do not break it.

That person held your heart, cradled it in his or her hands. And is gone.

You cannot erase the pain. You cannot reverse the loss.

Instead you must carry them – memories – some robust and some fragile. Some that are clear and bright like summer suns. Others slight, glinting off your memory like a whispered prayer.

Half a heart is hidden away, broken and concealed like an afikomen, leaving us with the hope that one day, at the promised end, the hoped-for end, it will be reunited.

When we lose the people we love, whether we lose them in life or lose them to death, there is a sense of a story unfinished, a chord as yet unplayed.

We carry all those disparate legacies inside ourselves. Like stones in a shepherd’s sling, we count each and every one.

At Yizkor we bless them for being a part of the stories not only that we tell, but the story that we are.

Even absent voices have an echo inside of us. And even when the person is no longer here, we know that love does not die.

Hide And Seek

Many of the high points of the Jewish tradition depend upon the end of concealment. In the Torah, God was long hidden from humanity until Abraham managed to see the world as filled with God’s presence. At Sinai, the notion of ‘revelation’ presupposes that before, there was hiddenness.

The approaching holiday of sukkah reminds us of this shadow side of Jewish understanding. The schach on the roof of the sukkah deliberately casts shadows on the floor, both revealing and concealing. The holiday follows on the heels of Yom Kippur, the time when we are supposed to bare our souls, seeking to hide nothing from ourselves or from God.

As has been noted by Heschel, among others, the tradition is a dialectic of human beings seeking God and God searching for human beings. We hide like children in a game, hoping to be found. The assurance of Sukkot is that, no matter where we live, in temporary huts or palatial mansions, we are never entirely concealed. We may feel neglected but we are not abandoned. As with the children of Israel who built the first huts crossing the desert, we may feel we are lost, but God has found us.

God’s Prayer – And Ours

At the beginning of the Talmud, in tractate Berachot, there is a curious question — What is God’s prayer? The Rabbis answer that God prays, “May My mercy overcome My anger.”

When our tradition speaks of God, it is also teaching something about humanity. For this is a version of our Yom Kippur prayer. No individual is composed entirely of mercy, or of kindness, or of anger, or of impatience. Experience has taught us that we cannot eradicate deep parts of ourselves and make them vanish as if they never existed. What we can do is encourage other parts until they predominate.

In a deep sense, the prayer that the Rabbis attribute to God is a prayer we need to offer on Yom Kippur. We, too, pray that the best parts of our souls prove stronger than the worst. We, too, try to develop the characteristics that enable others to love us and hold us close. We, too, try to suppress or redirect those aspects of character that pose challenges to intimacy, to goodness, to spiritual growth.

Dear God, in this coming year, may our mercy prove stronger than our anger, our kindness stronger than our cruelty, our love stronger than our hate.


Ignorance and Wisdom

On Rosh Hashanah, we read verses of sovereignty, memory and music – the shofar blast. Each is a pastiche of biblical verses that teaches lessons of psychology and soul.

Sovereignty is not only about God but about us. By emphasizing God’s majesty it reminds us that each human being is frail and foolish, but still loved and unique. And it recalls us to the reality that there are powerful ethical expectations for people in this world. We will fall short of course, but we are obligated to keep trying.

The verses of memory speak to the fear of being forgotten. God is called “Zochair Kol Hanishkachot” the One who remembers all things forgotten – including all of us. It reinforces the majesty verses – we are ephemeral but also eternal.

Finally the verses of the shofar remind us of the rhythms of our lives. This is the punctuation at the end and beginning of the year, recalling everything that has happened and all we dream of for the year to come. The shofar stirs us like military music, to straighten our spine and set us on the path to a better life in the new year.

Ignorance and Wisdom

In 1913, British novelist E.C. Bentley wrote a mystery called “Trent’s Last Case.” It became a classic not only for the sparkling writing, but because the detective observes meticulously, reasons brilliantly – and comes to the exact wrong conclusion. It is a marvelous lesson in intellectual humility.

As recently as 2002, scientists asked a large number of people how such everyday things as zippers, piano keys and bicycles actually work. People were robustly confident that they knew – and then proved abysmally ignorant. We know far less about the world than we assume, and our reasoning is often flawed.

All of this should not stop the acquisition of knowledge or the march of reason. But the world should shave some excesses off our self-confidence. What is true in the physical world is true in the spiritual world. Thousands of years testify to the power of prayer, even if its operation is obscure. Genuine repentance changes a life, though the mechanism is a mystery. Opening your heart to God can grant moments of dazzling light, unseen by the eye or spectrometer. We know a lot, but it is a teaspoon from the ocean. Much cannot be expressed, but other people, our own souls and God can be profoundly addressed.

Courts of Love

In medieval England and France, there were courts of love. They legislated on questions regarding love, passed sentence on lovers who were in the wrong, and generally tried to establish a system of jurisprudence to keep love disputes from the regular courts.

Charles the IV established his court on Valentine’s Day of 1400 by having a panel of women select the judges based on oral recitation or examples of poetry; others were composed of married women or widows themselves. One man who renounced his vows to a lady only to marry a woman of ‘higher station’ had to pay his spurned lover for the transgression, though the court did not force him to marry.

While Jews did not have ‘courts of love’ per se, Judaism also adjudicated promises and romantic entanglements in court, and does to this day. No one can accurately judge feelings, but the courts could judge promises made.

Love overspills law. No legal netting, however fine, can capture the quicksilver nature of the human heart. We are told in the Talmud that “God wants the heart.” Not only does God want it directed toward heaven, but toward one another, with a sincerity and fullness that cannot be measured or judged but can surely be felt.

The Emotions of Elul

This week began the month of Elul, a time of introspection and self-appraisal. These are not entirely the same tasks. Introspection helps us understand our own motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Self-appraisal is concerned with our actions and how they affect other people.

These are naturally intertwined, since our actions spring from within. Yet it is remarkable how often what we do is not taken as intended. We say things that are misunderstood, gestures of tenderness that seem callous, help experienced as interference, restraint interpreted as indifference. We need to explore why we do unkind things, and also why we sometimes misjudge the impact of our intended kindnesses.

Each morning of this month we blow to shofar which is often described as an alarm clock for our consciences. It is a wordless blast, because there are so many different feelings, relationships and understandings that must be aroused or renewed in this time that no single statement could begin to capture them all. Elul is the time we most forcefully call to mind that we are broken, aspiring souls, climbing and falling, seeking in this year to be just a bit better than we were in the last.


Wide As The World

Many years ago at Hebrew University I studied with the renowned Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid. During a bus ride we took together, he talked about my plans of becoming a Rabbi and explained why the challenge to Judaism was different in the modern world.

Prof. Schweid told me that traditionally, Torah had to measure itself against a single tradition or school of thought: it was the Torah versus Aristotle, or Islam, or Christianity. But today the Torah must contend with a large variety of disparate disciplines: astronomy, sociology, biology, psychology, archeology, history, linguistics, physics and on and on.

As a result of this change, some champions of Torah close themselves off from all modern scholarship. Others seek to be more nimble and widely learned to contend with the challenges of the modern age. Our most important scholars will be like Ralbag and Rambam, masters of secular learning as well as Torah. As knowledge expands such comprehensive expertise is not fully achievable. But the enterprise is important: God’s Torah is as wide as the world and if you reject knowledge of the world, in some deep sense, you also reject the Torah.

Excellence, Not Perfection

As a child I had the disorienting experience of visiting other children’s homes and discovering that their families sometimes did things better than my own. Because I loved my own family and thought them ideal, I didn’t know what to do with this information. Eventually I came to recognize that something or someone you love can be excellent without being perfect.

As I grew I came to this realization about my country. The United States is unique. Ours is a remarkable and blessed land. Yet I have studied history and know that we have also done some disreputable and even horrendous things throughout history. The United States is magnificent but it is not perfect.

In time I learned this about my own tradition. As I met with scholars and teachers in other religions I recognized that there were things Judaism could learn from them. Judaism had a great deal to teach, but it is both arrogant and narrow to believe it has nothing to learn. Judaism is sublime but not perfect. No one person, family, nation or tradition is given everything. Part of excellence is the willingness to learn from one another.

Only God, My Dear

“My beloved is radiant… the winter is passed.” So does the Song of Songs, Judaism’s preeminent poem of passion, speak about the warmth and glow of the one who is loved. Such similes endure throughout the ages. Shakespeare asks if he shall compare his love to a summer’s day. Leonard Cohen asks, “With Annie gone, whose eyes to compare with the morning sun?”

Pointing to the wonders of nature is for religion a sacred as well as a poetic duty. God has given us a treasure house of metaphor to explore our feelings, to understand how to love and to praise. The human spirit is always drawn to tangible things; that is why we use metaphors with God as well – a rock, a refuge, a parent.

Human love is enhanced by what we see, feel and imagine. God’s love transcends the material, a contrast most beautifully expressed by Yeats in his poem “For Anne Gregory:”

‘I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.’