Off the Pulpit


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Bring Back the Noise

For years we had a problem at morning minyan. There is a day school in the synagogue, which is a great blessing. The kids arrive around the time of the minyan, which is less of a blessing. People trying to pray would be distracted by a sudden onrush of noise – parents dropping off their children, children shouting to one another, and an occasional frantic student running into the chapel to grab a kippah that was inadvertently left at home. The minyan attendees were a very tolerant bunch, but sometimes it was not easy.

Then of course, the pandemic struck. Not only did we miss the minyan at first, but even after it resumed, and procedures were altered or only certain classes were in person, things were quiet. And I realized I missed the noise.

I wonder how much that we think of as a problem we would miss if it was taken away. Sometimes underneath what we consider difficulty there is emptiness. I remember the woman in the assisted living facility who was asked by sociologist Barbara Myerhoff why she fights with the other residents so often. She answered, “We fight to keep warm.”

Bring back the problems. Bring back the noise.

A Tradition of Song

In synagogue we do something that people in society rarely do – we sing together. Our greatest heroes composed shirim – the Hebrew word for Psalm and also for song. Moses sang, Miriam sang, and King David was the “sweet singer of Israel (2 Sam 23:1).” When the children of Israel cross the sea, they cry out “The Lord is my strength and my song (ex. 15:2).” The spirit of song runs deep in the Jewish people.

There is a small midrash called Perek Shirah, the chapter of song. It depicts the entire world singing to God, beginning with the heavens and earth, moving to the animals, birds and fish and even plant life. Everything has its song. So central is song to redemption that the Talmud says the reason Hezekiah did not become the Messiah was that despite the miracles God performed for him, he did not sing to God (San. 94a).

Judaism is a tradition of study and ritual, but also of song. “Your laws are songs for me wherever I may dwell,” says the Psalmist (119:54). No Sabbath is complete without Shabbat songs; the Torah is chanted, not merely read, and the tradition of chazzanut, the melodies of prayer, is ancient. As Rabbi Yehuda HeChasid put it many centuries ago, “I sing hymns and weave songs because my soul yearns for You.”

The Gift of Growth

One of the unfortunate aspects of current culture is that the antagonisms are counterproductive: insulting someone makes them less susceptible to change. Who would wish to join the side that has vilified them? The ratcheting up of rhetoric makes others less likely to have a change of heart and make common cause with a side that was so unkind to them.

This is partly a symptom of a tragic view of human beings — that they cannot or will not change. When someone apologizes, the instant response is to distrust its sincerity. When a person does change a position or outlook, we tend to ask — well, what is in it for him?

Judaism is premised on the idea that people can change and do change. It sometimes seems unexpected, even incongruous, but as Buckminster Fuller said, “There’s nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”

Growing up, I never thought I would be a Rabbi. I never thought I would be a vegetarian. I never thought I would live on the West Coast. I could go on and on. We pigeonhole people at our own peril. Give yourself and others the space to change and the gift of growth.

The True Story of a Record-breaking Feat

In 1943, chess grandmaster Miguel Najdorf played 40 opponents simultaneously – blindfold. As interesting as the feat itself is why he chose to do it.

Najdorf grew up in Poland as Mojsze Mendel Najdorf and became one of the leading players in the world. In 1939, he was representing Poland in the chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires when WWII broke out. He stayed in Argentina and could not communicate with his family.

Najdorf wanted to let them know how he was, and perhaps establish contact. He decided that if he did something that would make the newspapers all over the world, his family might see it and know that he was alright. To keep all those games in memory without a board is phenomenally difficult and no one had managed more than 34. Najdorf decided to break the blindfold record.

Sadly, although covered by the press all over the world it did not bring him news of his family, who perished in the Holocaust. In 1947, seeking once again to find anyone who might have known him from his previous life, he increased the number to 45, a record that stood until 2011. A remarkable man who played blindfold to get the world to see.


A Strange Holiday

It is a commonplace to say that something is what it is. Well, Shemini Atseret is what it isn’t.

On the one hand, it is the eighth day of sukkot, hence the name “Shemini” which means eighth. On the other hand, as we say “Shehechiyanu” on Shemini Atseret, it is a separate holiday. On yet another hand, there are different interpretations of what Atseret means, whether ‘stop’ or ‘gather’ or to “store up” as with grain. It is marked by Yizkor, the memorial prayer, and geshem, the prayer for rain, but neither defines the holiday.

So what is it? It is the close of the extended holiday season, a chance to usher in the winter rains, an additional day to linger in God’s presence. In other words, it is many things, but without the single defining feature that so marks other holidays in the Jewish calendar. Seven days of the week, seven days of creation – the eighth is extra, over and above the requirement. Shemini Atseret expresses our unwillingness to leave the holiday sense of God’s presence; a gentle, lingering close to the celebrations and a portal to the new year.

Both Passing and Permanent

I don’t know if the story is true, but I hope it is. Goldberg built a sukkah. Next door lived a nasty man who didn’t like Jews and decided to get an injunction against unstable structures in the neighborhood. The case came to court and having listened to the arguments, Judge Steinberg said, “You are correct. The structure may not stand. Mr. Goldberg, you have a week to take it down.”

Sukkot is a holiday of temporariness. Everything passes, everything changes. Walls are fragile, roofs are porous, life itself is passing. We read Ecclesiastes to remind ourselves that all is hevel, vanity – in the sense of fleeting and empty.

Yet Sukkot is also the holiday of eternity. For the covering of the sukkah must enable us to see the stars; we invite Ushpizin, guests from the past, into the Sukkah; and Ecclesiastes concludes by reminding us to revere the reality of God. We live between the passing and the permanent; creatures of flesh and blood but endowed with a spark of the eternal. Chag Sameach.

Yom Kippur Connections

When I was a child and left a school to move to another city, there was a good chance that I would not see my schoolmates again. There was no social media and every lived in their own city and their own world.

Now people can be in touch with almost everyone with whom they crossed paths. We are closer to the population of our own pasts than was imaginable even two decades ago. Yet with all the potential closeness to others, we seem farther from ourselves.

Yom Kippur is a time to rediscover and renew one’s own soul. It is not about how many friends or followers you have, or the pictures you post, or the political frame of your world. This is about you, as you stand before the Creator and before your honest inner eye. What do you see? Who have you become? What soul growth beckons?

The gates are open to prayer. The question is not who has walked through them before and who will walk through them in the future. The question is – will you?

Listen To This!

The mitzvah is not to blow the shofar, but to listen to it. That may be because only one person can blow and many listen, but I would like to think that it is teaching the Jewish version of why we have one mouth but two ears. Because as much as we need to say things, we need to hear things even more.

We live in a culture that prizes self-expression. There are classes in creative writing, journaling, speaking, all the ways in which we can bring forth what is inside of us. But few and far between are those who instruct us in how to listen. The shofar reminds us that the greatest lessons have already been taught, the wisdom exists in the world, and the trick is not to reinvent but to discover. And we discover best by listening.

So as we listen to the shofar this year, may it be a spur to listening. The world offers a symphony of sounds and many wonderful words. Sh’ma — hear them, O Israel.


God and Gershwin

On Shabbat morning in synagogue I realized that the Gershwin lyric: “The Rockies may tumble/ Gibraltar may crumble/ they’re only made of clay/ but our love is here to stay” had a biblical root. Because we read in the Haftorah from Isaiah 54:10: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you.”

That got me to thinking anew how many are unaware of the constant theme in Judaism of God’s love. My first book, over thirty years ago, was called “The Healer of Shattered Hearts” and explored this theme, and related themes of God as close to us and guiding us. “I will love them freely” says the prophet Hosea in God’s name (14:5) and the Rabbis comment that this means — even when they do not love Me back.

The God of Israel is a God of power and creation, to be sure. But also, a God of love. From Genesis to Gershwin, God’s love is here to stay.

Wounding and Forgiving

Right before Yom Kippur two women who have had a long standing fight see one another in the synagogue. One says: “You know, it is a new year. It is time to put an end to the bickering and fighting. I want you to know that in the new year I wish for you everything you wish for me.”

And the second woman says, “So, you are starting up with me again!”

Elul is the month of repentance but also a time of forgiveness. We know we are supposed to approach others and ask for forgiveness but what if we are the wronged party? When others approach what should we do?

To forgive is to no longer feel superior. It is to admit that you too are in need of forgiveness. While it may be that something you find unforgivable, the vast majority of things we need to forgive are forgivable. The cruel thing said to you when you have said cruel things. The business taken from you when you know you have taken business from others. Of course it is difficult. We hurt, we grudge, we nurse grievances. The world is full of wounding. It can only be healed by becoming a world full of forgiveness.