Off the Pulpit


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


Is That Clear?

Every intellectual or academic discipline has its apostles of obscurity. There are novels which cannot be read without a teacher or a guidebook. Much modern poetry defeats the most resolute attempt to unravel its enigmas. And even when pundits try to make things clear, we often feel them the way Byron did when commenting on the poet Coleridge’s account of German philosophy: “Explaining metaphysics to the nation/ I wish he would explain his explanation.”
A great deal of Jewish commentary is devoted to explaining the explanation. The Talmud explains the Mishna. Rashi explains the Talmud. Later commentators explain Rashi. Judaism is often called a tradition of interpretation but it might be called a tradition of explaining the explanation.
Of course some things are intrinsically hard to understand. But clarity is not less intelligent than mystification, and brevity is not necessarily less satisfying than length. The Gettysburg address was 272 words, the Ten Commandments even fewer. We may not live up to them but we do understand them. Is that clear?

How Old Are You?

When the famed writer Isaac Bashevis Singer reached the age of sixty, he told his friend he knew he would live to 120. “How can you be so sure?” his friend asked. “Because” explained Singer, “when I went for my checkup my doctor told me I was half dead.”

Many cultures discuss what is appropriate to each age. 30 is the age of strength in the Talmud, the age of courting according to Greek thinker Solon, the age when Confucius ‘planted his feet firm on the ground.’ At sixty, the age of Singer’s quip, the Talmud says he is becoming an elder in wisdom, and for Confucius, he has become a good listener.

As life extends roles change, but there are still clear stages through which people pass, chronicled by everyone from Shakespeare in poetry to Erickson in psychology. Age is the inevitable division, as youth has not experienced growing old and old age is often hazy in its recollection of youth, and the world has changed.

We therefore owe it to one another to share across ages as we do culture and background. Each age has its passion and its lesson. As Rav Kook said in another context, it is our task to renew the old and sanctify the new.

No More Masks

Purim is a holiday of masks. A mask doesn’t fully change you, but it obscures identity, distorting who you are. A mask permits you to assume a slightly different way of being in the world. The boy who dresses as Mordechai can act old and wise, but everyone recognizes him as a boy playing a role; the girl who dresses as Esther can play at being bold, heroic and a queen, but everyone knows she is still a little girl.

There are many reasons why Purim is associated with masks, but surely a deep meaning is that it is a diaspora holiday. Purim takes place in ancient Shoushan, Persia. The plot revolves around Haman, who hates the Jews. The reason given is that Mordechai, a Jew, will not bow down to him, but the story implies that Haman’s rage is what we have come to know as classic anti-Semitism — a hatred in search of a rationale.

In our day we appreciate why Purim is a holiday of masks. In the diaspora, Jews were forced to wear masks all of the time. In Muslim lands we were dhimmi, second class citizens subject to a vast range of indignities. But there was no protest against the status for Jews were powerless to change it. We wore the mask of acceptance and accommodation. In Christian Europe, Jews were regularly exiled, persecuted, belittled targeted for conversion and sometimes killed. But in country after country they donned the mask of the willing subject, because rebellion against their situation only made it worse. For the few who did not wear a mask, the Mordecais who did not bow down, paid a terrible price.

Even in the United States, for a long time Jews were afraid. During World War II many Jewish leaders were reluctant to challenge the government’s neglect of the massacres in Europe for fear of stoking anti-Semitism here at home.

With the founding of the state of Israel, Jews finally took their masks off. This is who we are, we declared to the world, a free people who can practice our own tradition. After the catastrophe of the Shoah American Jews realized the cost of hiding. Part of the rise of anti-Semitism is the resentment of those who are angry at unmasked Jews. Many prefer the way things were in the age of the original Purim, the time of the frightened diaspora, to the Jewish situation today. Yes, they hated Jews who were scared as well, but at least there was a measure of control. No more. As Purim ends across the world in our day, we can take our costumes off — because the Jewish people need never wear masks again.

An Ancient Right To Privacy

In an internet age, there is a great deal of discussion about the right to privacy. 
The Torah already contains a provision for privacy – a creditor may not enter a debtor’s home even to fetch what is due to him (Deut. 24:10-11). The prohibition on entering another’s home unannounced is then embraced by the Rabbis of the Talmud as a general principle. R. Shimon lists entering a house – even one’s own – unannounced is one of four things that God detests and people do not like either! And not to enter a house unannounced is one of seven pieces of advice Rabbi Akiva is said to have left to his son.
There are halachic (Jewish legal) prohibitions against building in such a way that you can peer into the windows of your neighbor’s home. Not only must others respect our privacy, but Judaism expects that we will guard it ourselves. The pagan sorcerer Bilaam praises the tents of Jacob because, the Rabbis explain, tent openings faced away from one another so that each had privacy. Social media reaches into our homes. We have a right to know what, or who, is coming in, and a right to turn away.

A Sage On Freedom Of Speech

One of the characteristics of great sages is that they rise above their times and express truths despite the prevailing climate of opposing opinion. The following was written in the 16th century:

“Even if his words are spoken and directed against faith and religion, do not tell a man not to speak and suppress his words. Otherwise there will be no clarification in religious matters. On the contrary, one should tell a person to express whatever he wants…and he should never claim that he would have said more, had he been given the opportunity…Thus my opinion is contrary to what some people think. They think that when it is forbidden to speak against religion, religion is strengthened; but it is not so. The elimination of the opinions of those who are opposed to religion undermines religion and weakens it.”

So wrote the famous Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, of Prague (also of Golem fame). He wrote in a time when suppression of dissent and persecution of heretics was rife. But the Maharal understood that deep faith could survive questioning and even thrive on it and need not be afraid.

The Greatest Beauty

There is a poignant story of Reb Aryeh Levin, a saintly and renowned Rabbi of Jerusalem who passed away in 1969. Once before the holiday of Sukkot, when people were busily seeking the perfect etrog (the fruit used for the Sukkot celebration) Reb Aryeh was seen heading into an old age home. A student asked him why, when visiting an old age home was possible at any time of the year, he would not use his precious moments before the holiday to choose the perfect etrog.
Reb Aryeh told him that there are two times when the Torah uses the word hidur (beautification) in relation to a mitzvah. One is with the etrog (Lev. 23:40) and the other is honoring the face of the aged (Lev. 19:32). Now, explained Reb Aryeh, fruit is an object, but an aged individual is a subject. Too often we are more concerned with things than people. The greater mitzvah is beautifying the commandments relating to human beings.
In an age of increasingly sleek, diverting and beautiful objects, Reb Aryeh’s lesson is more compelling than ever. No natural magnificence or crafted ingenuity is more beautiful than human compassion.


Beyond The Fire

“When God saw that Moses turned aside to look, God called out of the bush (Ex. 3:4)” Why? What was so special about Moses turning aside to look that only then did God call out? The rabbis teach that the bush had been burning since the beginning of time but only Moses saw that it was special, that it was not consumed. In this Moses teaches us perhaps the most important lesson about contemporary politics and culture.
The word ‘focus’ comes from the Latin, meaning ‘domestic hearth.’ In other words, a fire makes us focus. We all know how a flame draws attention; there is something fascinating about fire.
The same is true with metaphorical fires. When politics is incendiary, when there is screaming or anger or accusation, we are riveted. Conflict draws our attention. Fire makes us focus.
What Moses alone saw was the living, growing bush beneath the fire. He looked past the conflagration to the flourishing growth beneath. We need to learn from this example, to recognize that past the shouting there are charitable and devoted people, sincerely and quietly working to make the world better. They may not shout on TV or twitter, but they feed and clothe people, provide shelter and invent medicines and make peace. Let us learn from Moses to see beyond the fire to the beauty beneath. 

Advice For In-Laws?

“Therefore a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife” teaches Genesis 2:24. I have always thought that verse was directed toward parents and even more, in-laws.
It is a familiar scenario. You raise children, feed them, care for their every need, and feel that powerful bond that love and dependency create. You remember their last cold and their first steps. Then one day she comes home and points to a boy you have never met and says, “This is the most important person in the world to me.”
You might feel wounded, but the Torah is telling you that is how it is supposed to be. Indeed this is what Adam and Eve do to God – listening to one another instead of their Parent. Such is the order of the universe. There is a natural assumption that this new person cannot care for, understand or cherish your child as you can. Banish the thought from your mind: At the very beginning of creation, God teaches us to be good parents and loving in-laws. From Eden on, the generational tide must turn. 

The First and the Last

The first mitzvah in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. The last mitzvah is to write a Sefer Torah. In some sense, these are the same mitzvah.
Judaism entrusts its adherents with the sacred task of transmission. Never a dominant faith in population, it has often counted on a “saving remnant” to ensure its survival in this world.
Every parent, ever teacher, every writer and student and scribe is an agent of transmission.What is handed on will never be an exact copy of what was. The letters in the Torah remain the same but the implications and interpretations will grow and change.
What matters is less the nuance than the enterprise.
Since the beginning of time, countless traditions have been lost to us. Judaism endured because between the brackets of the first and last mitzvah stood the teaching that who we are arises from what we know and what we love.       
The echo of our ancestors endured through the ages: raise up children, train students, teach, write, and cherish the word so that we will never be forgotten. 

Commanded Not To Covet?

How can we be commanded not to covet? After all, wanting something is natural. Yet the tenth commandment teaches us not to covet.

There are many answers in the Jewish tradition. One points to the idea that you only covet that which you believe you can have. Whatever belongs to someone else should be considered strictly off limits, and if you think of it that way you will not covet it. More radically, one Hasidic response reminds us that in the Torah, they are not called the Ten Commandments, but aseret hadevarim – the ten sayings. The first for example, “I am the Lord your God” does not exactly fit the structure of the English “commandment.”

Therefore, Rabbi Yechiel of Zlachov teaches, “Thou shalt not covet” is not a commandment. It is a promise. If you live your life according to the other nine devarim, you will not want for anything. While others may be tormented by desires, you will feel grateful and blessed. You will not, as the poet wrote, find yourself desiring ‘this man’s art and that man’s scope, with what I most enjoy contented least.’ The tenth commandment, then, is the reward for observing the other nine – a little inner peace.