Off the Pulpit


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Don’t Grovel!

In the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” God comes out of the sky and growls at the prostrate knights: “Oh, don’t grovel – one thing I can’t stand is people groveling.”

Well, Monty Python may be British but their God sounds Jewish. When God first speaks to the prophet Ezekiel, the call begins: “Stand on your feet that I may speak to you (2:1).” In Jewish prayer we bend for a blessing, but we say God’s name once we have returned to an upright position. Falling to one’s knees or on one’s face is very rare, restricted to the high holidays.

Judaism has elements of submission. We are not God, and remain conscious of the vast gulf between ourselves and the Eternal. Yet we are shutafim, partners, and invested with the agency and dignity of being God’s messengers in this world. So when we approach the Divine in prayer or study or meditation, it is in recognition of the nobility of being human and the privilege of partnership. As the Psalmist says, God has made us “little less than angels, and clothed us in glory and majesty (Ps. 8:5).” Be humanly humble – don’t grovel.

Artists and Passengers

The medieval poet Moses Ibn Ezra used the following simile: We are like passengers on a ship, believing we are stationary when in fact we are headed toward a destination. Similarly, we do not realize that as we believe our lives to be steady state, we move inexorably toward death.

Judaism is neither fixated on death nor in denial about it. We return from a funeral to food; the “meal of transition” affirms that however sad, mourners are alive, and the needs of the living must be addressed. Remembering the dead is a sacred obligation. Those who remember should themselves be celebrants of life.

Death is the frame within which the picture must be painted. It determines the limits but not the image. Being mindful of the limits makes possible the artistry of each stroke, the choice of color and the vision toward which one is working. We are artists and passengers, carrying within us sparks of eternity.

Spiritual Fractals

The cauliflower explains a lot about the Jewish tradition.

A fractal is a self-similar pattern, whose scale or size differs. Things in nature display different degrees of such self-similarity — break a cauliflower apart and a piece will look like a whole. Much of the modern interest in fractals is due to the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, a Jewish mathematician born in Warsaw who left before the war and went on to have a very distinguished career.

Our sages teach that the deeds of the ancestors are signs for the children. In other words, Jewish history repeats itself, and if you study the past you will discern many of the shapes of the present. This is Judaism’s way of presenting history as a spiritual fractal. Look at the life of Jacob – the exile, the struggle, the dreams, the passing on of Judaism to future generations – and you will see the spiritual fractal of Israel.

Nothing in history is exactly the same of course. But there are recurrent patterns in the experience of the Jewish people that validate the rabbinic insight. Jews are often called the people of the book, but we can also learn a lot from the cauliflower.

New Year Resolutions

Resolutions for the New Year:

1. To laugh often, but in amusement, not in derision.
2. To pray often, but with appreciation, not avarice.
3. To lift my eyes from screens and remind myself of the variety, beauty, occasional savagery and sublimity of God’s created world.
4. To try listening without simultaneously preparing a response.
5. To believe that opinions other than my own, especially on things Jewish and things American, deserve the dignity of serious appraisal.
6. To recognize that as a fortunate person I cannot permit myself the luxury of exhausting my compassion for others.
7. To push myself and the world a little closer, in whatever way I am able, toward betterment as I understand God would have it.
8. To forgive myself and others for the shortcomings in realizing these goals, without abandoning or belittling them.