Off the Pulpit


2023  |  2022  |  2021  |  2020  |  2019  |  2018  |  2017  |  2016  |  2015  |  2014  |  2013  |  2012  |  2011  |  2010  |  2009  |  2008  |  2007  |  2006  |  2005


Peace Or Discontent?

There are powerful competing ideologies of religious meaning, one promoting acceptance and the other, discontent. Are we supposed to accept the world, be at peace with its foibles and tragedies, or are we to fight always against the world, to seek to make it better and not rest easy with its shortcomings?

In 1946 Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote a bestseller called “Peace of Mind” in which he argued for balance and calm as religious objectives. In contrast two years before in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that “Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness, with all its crises, pangs, and torments.”

While many of the practices of Judaism – meditation, prayer, the entire Shabbat day – are devoted to seeking and maintaining equilibrium and internal peace, the prevailing sentiment is surely that of dissatisfaction with the state of the world and the state of one’s soul. We are less for comfort than for challenge, and the prophetic calls to be better still ring in our ears.

Normal Mystics

The rabbinic scholar Max Kadushin came up with a marvelous title for the Rabbis of the Talmud. He called them “Normal Mystics.”

Mystics throughout history have seen visions denied to the rest of humanity. Many retreat from the world to mountaintops or forests in order to cultivate and concentrate on those visions. They practice deep, continuous spiritual exercises in the hope of sharpening and deepening the special sight that is granted to them by virtue of their gifts.

As Kadushin pointed out, that was not the Rabbinic path. Yes, the Rabbis prayed and meditated, and certainly had moments of solitude and contemplation. But the tradition forced them to engage in the world, in the everyday interactions of the market and the life of family. In this sense they were profoundly ‘normal.’

Yet in each moment, whether at the dinner table, the study hall or the marketplace, the Rabbis had a deep and profound sense of the presence of God. They were not cave dwelling Corybants practicing secret rituals. They plunged into the world to discover its foundations. In their steady but certain goodness and conviction of God’s presence, these normal mystics shaped the tradition that shaped us all.


Effortful Eloquence

When God calls to Moses at the burning bush, Moses protests that he cannot go to Pharaoh because he has a speech impediment. If the Torah were a children’s fairy tale book, God would have simply cured Moses of his impediment, and sent him to Pharaoh.

Rather than cure Moses, God says, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (Ex. 4:11). God not only acknowledges Moses’ problems with speech, but claims responsibility for them.

For the next forty years Moses will lead a recalcitrant and immature people through the wilderness to the foot of the promised land. There are innumerable difficulties and trials along the way. The same God that miraculously delivered Israel from Egypt could presumably miraculously install them across the Jordan. But as with Moses, the effort itself is indispensable. We struggle with speech as we do with silence, with closeness as with distance, with faith as with doubt. But our impediments are also encouragements — to do better, to be better. God understood that Moses’ words would be wrung from pain and etched in fire, so that after thousands of years they continue to change lives.

Broken Whole Hearts

When someone suffers the loss of a person whom they love, there is always a certain wonder and even resentment that the world seems not to notice. The heavens do not open, the sun still shines, and most people go about their business as if nothing monumental had happened.

That is one of the reasons we observe shiva, the seven days of mourning. The avel, the one who mourns, wears torn clothes except on Shabbat so that everyone knows that for this person the world has been plunged into a kind of darkness and will never be the same. The word avel means withdrawal or solitude, because even in a crowd the one who grieves often feels separate and alone.

The tear represents the way in which a life has been torn in two, and reminds us of the wise words of the Kotzker Rebbe – the only whole heart is a broken one. To have one’s heart broken in this world is to prove that one has loved, and therefore that one’s heart is whole. Gradually the scarred heart will reenter the world to help another with the gentleness and wisdom born of pain.

Two Strikes, You’re In!

Some people never tire of beating themselves up. It is a distressing sight – their self-blame is immediate, overwhelming, and destructive. Others, by contrast, never beat themselves up. Their sense of self-worth is invulnerable, and no matter how badly they may misstep or even hurt others, it does not tarnish the pristine shine of their self-regard.

Obviously neither extreme is conducive to a healthy, balanced life. So I was struck (pun sort of intended) by the passage in the Amidah where we twice hit our chests in remorse. Now this makes sense, I thought — we are advised that a certain self-blame is healthy and important for moral awareness. But you only strike your chest twice, because constantly beating your chest is not good.

Judaism cultivates a moral sense, and part of that moral sense is high expectations for our own behavior. But it also emphasizes human fallibility and the necessity of forgiveness, including self-forgiveness. To think oneself unworthy is as mistaken as to think oneself infallible. Two times we strike our chest; no strikes, or three strikes, and you’re out.

George Washington and the Synagogue President

No country is perfect and no nation without crimes and flaws. Some few nations however, are defined by aspiration as well as achievements far greater than their shortcomings. America is founded on a great idea; Israel was founded on a great idea. Each struggles to realize the high possibilities that are part of its mission. Both are intertwined in history and in destiny.

Many of the founders of the United States were Hebraists, and the first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing the Red Sea. Both Israel and the United States were built around the idea of freedom from tyranny and service to something greater than oneself.

When George Washington stood before the Hebrew congregation at Newport in 1790 and declared that the government of this country “gives to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” he was quoting the letter written to him by Moses Seixas, President of the synagogue. That the father of our country should be quoting a synagogue President in declaring the promise of this nation symbolizes the synergy that has existed between Israel and the United States. On this Fourth of July, we celebrate a world in which both exist, and pray they may grow greater and kinder under the blessing of a benevolent God.


Deliberately Accidental

According to the Torah, when a farmer harvested his field he was obligated to leave one corner unharvested, so that the poor could harvest it themselves and keep the produce. When gathering sheaves together, any sheaves that she forgot or stalks that were dropped are left for the poor as well.

The last two laws – shikchah (forgetting a sheaf) and leket (dropping them) are curious because they are mitzvot that one cannot do deliberately. If you pretend to forget, you have not performed the mitzvah; if you drop it deliberately, you may still leave it for the poor, but you haven’t fulfilled the mitzvah of leket, which requires inadvertence.

There is a way to make it likelier that you will fulfill the mitzvah, however. If you feel a sense of surplus, of plentitude – that God provides more than you need – if you harvest with the slightly careless attitude of one reaping great riches rather than one counting few coins, you are more likely to forget or drop some of the harvest. Living in gratitude makes one less frugal and even stingy. So gather with confidence in life’s immeasurable abundance and others will find blessing in what you leave behind.

Cellphones In The Torah?

“You shall not light fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Ex. 35:3). On the basis of this verse many Jewish authorities forbid the use of electricity, which is a kind of fire. Others question that prohibition, but in our day the use of electricity on Shabbat has become more common because of cellphones. Even people who would normally refrain from turning on lights can’t always keep themselves from scrolling through texts or twitter.

But I think the same verse can be used explicitly to outlaw cellphone use on Shabbat. Because according to the Sfat Emeth (R. Yehuda Alter), that verse also means that one should not allow oneself to become angry on the Sabbath. We should not light the fire of rage in our dwellings.

Now it is virtually impossible to get on social media without becoming angry. Apparently this is the explicit intent of many who lurk there – how can I infuriate another human being? Since rage is forbidden on Shabbat, it seems pretty clear that cellphone use is prohibited. And for God’s sake, please – no picture taking, even if the Bar Mitzvah is your cousin.

Why Atheists Should Pray

In some ways arguing for God’s existence is a fruitless exercise. Though I have engaged in many such public debates with well known atheists, I’m not sure anyone has been convinced one way or another. I am convinced however, that inability to appreciate the peaks of religious experience is a true lack. Listen to the wise words of philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

“I am moved by religious services… I think that those who do not understand what it is to be religious, do not understand what human beings live by. That is why dry atheists seem to me blind and deaf to some forms of profound human experiences, perhaps the inner life: it is like being aesthetically blind.”

The fervency of true prayer, the music of the service, the reaching toward something beyond the self – all of these are part of the experience of aiming your spirit upwards. To feel oneself an entirely earthbound creature is to miss a vast, poignant dimension of being human. Atheist or believer, have you poetry in your soul? Pray.

The True Wisdom

We often complain there is too little wisdom in the world. Actually there is too much. We have vast compendia of advice, sage writings from people who have endured much and thought deeply, legacies from civilizations worldwide that have sustained generations.

The problem is that even when we are willing to listen it is hard to know which bit of wisdom fits which situation. There is a wisdom to holding fast, but also to letting go. There is a wisdom to caution and to heedlessness. When Ecclesiastes wisely counsels us that there is a time for everything, a time to speak and a time to be silent, it unfortunately neglects to tell us which time is applicable to which act.

As we grow older and the patterns of life become more familiar, we hope to develop that essential quality of any good performer, timing. We can anticipate life’s punch lines, as it were. We recognize situations where in the past we chose the wrong bit of wisdom and can now incline to the right one. But life is infinitely various and the great art, honed through a lifetime of chances missed and regrets remembered, is to do the right thing at the right time. Good luck.