Off the Pulpit


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Is It My Fault?

When something bad or tragic happens to people, they will often say, “what did I do to deserve this?”

Many people insist that nothing happens without a reason. Karma, or what you put out there, is the cause for whatever you may be suffering today. I don’t believe that is the way the world works. Rather it has always appeared to me that much of life is random, and our challenge is how we react to that which is given us. Rather than arrange each event, God gives us strength to meet them as they come.

In the Talmud, it says if one plants stolen wheat by rights it should not grow, but “the world goes on its way.” In other words, things happen that our morality does not affect. Why then do we blame ourselves, when we know that the good often suffer and the wicked flourish? Because it is easier to be guilty than to be helpless. If we are guilty, we can change our behavior next time. But if much of what happens is random, we have to accept that we cannot control everything.

So seek to affect those things you can, and to meet with resilience, courage and faith those you cannot. Amidst the unpredictability of life, our attitude and responses are our charge and help fashion our destiny.


The Trap of Acclaim

The Athenian general Phocion was considered the wisest politician of his day, although he often opposed the prevailing consensus. Once, when his speech was interrupted by enthusiastic cheering, he paused: “Have I inadvertently said something stupid?”

Everyone in public life has had this experience. There are certain declarative or even disparaging statements that will arouse enthusiasm, not for their wisdom, but for their effectiveness as rallying cries. This power to evoke emotion is not the captive of any political party or faction and is addictive both to the speaker and to the crowd. Measured, thoughtful words do not bring people to their feet. The sober eloquence of the Gettysburg address may have made it immortal, but the reception at the time was mixed.

Perhaps that is why Moses calls heaven and earth to witness his final words (Deut. 32:1). They are not platitudes to whip the passions of the crowd; they are not appeals to anger, resentment, revenge or empty pride. Moses spoke not to the mania of the moment but the ages. If our utterances, in public or on social media, were less sensational and more soulful, perhaps they too would be worthy of being remembered.

A True Hero

In 1930 Winston Churchill asked, “Can a nation remain healthy, can all nations draw together, in a world whose brightest stars are film stars?” That question is far more cogent today than it was when Churchill first asked. We are a culture that lionizes people who create clever mini-videos or run faster than the person next to them. Skill is confused with character, and children revere people who, whatever their gifts, are not role models.

Athletes and singers exist in the Torah as well. There is a great physical prodigy the Torah, his name is Samson. But he becomes a hero only when his spiritual stature matches his strength. There is a woman whose singing draws an entire nation into song. Her name is Miriam, and her song exalts not appetite, but God.

The Rabbis advise us that a hero is one who can conquer himself. Heroism is shaped by accomplishment and moral force. Historian Daniel Boorstin writes: “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.” To bring light and life to God’s world, to struggle for goodness, such things are the stuff of heroism.

From Beyond the Grave

The poet Langston Hughes asked that a particular Duke Ellington song be played at his funeral: Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me.

Is such a thing possible? The idea of hearing messages from beyond the grave has tantalized human beings for as long as can remember. The Jewish tradition certainly believes that this life is not all. The possibility that there is some sort of murky bridge to the beyond is raised repeatedly in Jewish texts.

In one famous episode in a medieval source, Rabbi Akiba meets a man who was cruel in his life and whose son does not know or wish to say the kaddish for him. Through Rabbi Akiba’s efforts, the son comes to say kaddish and grants the man’s tortured soul some peace. Many times in the Talmud the Rabbis meet Elijah the prophet in the marketplace, and he is able to give them information on the doings up in heaven.

I have heard from many people over the years that they have been visited by relatives who passed away, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in visions. Although I have never had such an experience, I am aware that my own perceptions and understanding are limited, and it is not my job to insist to others that their experiences are unreal. Perhaps the membrane between here and there is thinner than we assume.


One of the lessons I have learned over decades in the rabbinate is how hard it is to criticize one’s own. People who will criticize other countries, or the other party, will not turn a disapproving eye on their own. On social media there is an unending parade of disparagement, but almost all of it disparages the side the author opposes anyway. Endless rhetorical bombs are lobbed over the fence, but few are exploded in one’s own camp.

Why is it so wrenching to criticize one’s own? In part because you do not only challenge beliefs, you also lose allies and friends. It is hurtful to those with whom you share community to be the one who rebukes.

Knowing this makes the Torah that much more powerful and impressive. Here is scripture that is relentless in its criticism of the very people to whom it is addressed. The prophets, overflowing with love of Israel, nonetheless lambast them for their moral flaws. There is plenty of criticism of other nations, of course; but we take it that much more seriously from a tradition that is ready to be honest and direct at home as well.


Don’t Trouble Yourself

There is a beautiful story told of the Brisker Rav, Reb Hayyim Halevy Soloveitchik. Once a man arrived late at night in Brisk. All the houses were dark save one so he knocked at the door. He was greeted warmly, and the host prepared a meal for him. Looking around the man saw that the house was filled with sefarim, sacred books, and surmised that the man was learned, a Rabbi or a perhaps a Dayyan, a judge.

The man became uncomfortable disturbing a scholar and said to his host, “You needn’t trouble yourself.” His host didn’t answer but instead began to make the bed and the man said, “You needn’t trouble yourself.”

The next morning, the two went to synagogue together and the traveler discovered that his host was the famed Rabbi, who offered the man the honor of hagbah, lifting the Torah. As the man prepared to lift it, the Rabbi whispered, “You needn’t trouble yourself.”

Through his own example the Brisker Rav was teaching the beautiful lesson that we should take no less trouble for a human being than we would for a scroll of Torah. When another person needs us, it is not a burden but a mitzvah.

Why Do Some People Hate Jews?

Hatred of Jews is the most intractable and sustained hatred in human history. Moreover, it is a hatred for which many reasons have been given by the haters, all of them demonstrably untrue.

Jews have been hated when they were poor and when they were rich; when they were communists and when they were capitalists; when they were stateless and when they had a state; when they were religious and when they were secular; when they ‘invaded and took jobs’ and when they were rootless and barred from the marketplace; when they were phenomenal achievers in the world and when they stayed in the study hall and did nothing but learn; even when they were present and (often after expulsions and murders) when they no longer lived in the country that still bore hatred for them.

In other words, Jews have been hated because they remained Jews. Because they refused, in the face of the most furious persecutions, to cease being who they were. Because they reflect back on the world the reality of its own brutality. Because, as Maurice Samuel once put it, “no one loves his alarm clock.”

Those who have embraced and welcomed the Jewish people have been blessed, as the Bible predicted. And this tiny tribe, 0.2% of the population of the world, endures, a testament to the phenomenal resilience of the Jewish spirit and the imperishable promise of God.

The Great Innovation

The Roman historian Tacitus relates that when Pompey and his troops entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem in 63 BCE, they found it “untenanted.” It was a mystery to them to find nothing inside the sacred shrine of the Jews. They assumed there would be a statues, but as the Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “in the sanctuary stood nothing whatever.”

Judaism declared even to an uncomprehending world that the greatest reality was intangible. Nothing produced by human hands could begin to adequately represent the Creator of the universe. God was literally no-thing, and any object was a betrayal of that reality.

We may be amused at Pompey’s surprise but things have not changed that much. We too are enchanted by the tangible and give most of our lives to contemplating that which we can measure or acquire. Yet again and again Judaism wrenches us out of the mire of material, and back into the space that the Roman soldier saw. You cannot touch transcendence. The God of Israel remains beyond depiction and beyond comprehension. How astonishing that one small tribe of people was able to recognize that truth thousands of years ago and stubbornly hold onto it in a hostile and unenlightened world, until it became part of the legacy of humanity.

The First Mitzvah and the Last

In Maimonides’ listing of the 613 commandments, the first is believing in God. The last is a king not amassing great personal wealth.

In a certain way, those two commandments, one positive and one negative, are intimately related to one another. Believing in God entails believing that one has limits. Much of Judaism reinforces this idea. When reciting the Amidah according to Jewish law, the regular worshipper bows at the beginning and the end of the first and last blessing. A High Priest bows at the beginning and the end of each blessing. A King must bow throughout the entire prayer (Berachot 34b).

Ego is integral to our characters and its distortions common to our struggles. It pushes us to do things and even want things that higher impulses warm against. As the world recognizes the eminence of an individual – priest, prophet, sage, king, or in our day, politician, tycoon, star, athlete – the temptation to self-aggrandizement grows greater.

Acknowledging that we are human and ephemeral, that there is a God, infinitely greater than ourselves, helps induce the humility that remind us not to overestimate our own gifts and accomplishments. The first and last mitzvah tie together to remind us – achievement is worthy; arrogance is outrageous.

The Perils of Reentry

Mitzrayim in Hebrew means narrow. We think of narrowness as a purely negative trait. Yet there are times when tighter is better: when we are held for example. “Snug” is another word for narrow – because sometimes to be confined is to feel safe and to be released is to feel scared.

The Israelites as they left the desert were scared. They were dizzy with freedom. Why did they build the golden calf? Because as slaves they were used to being told what to do and having an authoritative voice above them giving them direction. They craved narrowness.

“Escape from Freedom” as psychologist Erich Fromm wrote so powerfully, is a human impulse. One 19th century Rabbi said that when the Torah reads that God liberated us with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” that the hand was to take us out and the arm was to keep us from going back! Yes, the Jews wanted to return to Egypt. It was slavery, but it was safe.

We are about to be liberated from confinement in a very different sense. We too have to relearn to use it wisely, to be judicious and careful and kind. From the narrowness of our homes to the wideness of the world – the journey is a slightly scary one, but also beautiful and full of promise.