Off the Pulpit


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In Jacob’s dream, why do the angels who ascend and descend need ladders? Aren’t angels supposed to be able to fly?

The angels teach us that realizing dreams requires a step-by-step approach. While they take a moment to conceive, dreams demand effort and time to achieve. Ascent is not easy. As the Kotzker Rebbe said, “there is nothing straighter than a slanting ladder.” Stand a ladder upright and it falls. The sloping climb of gradualism best serves even the noblest of dreams.

Ladders point in both directions. Rabbi Jose ben Halafta was once asked what God has been doing since the completion of creation. His answer was that God has been building ladders for some to ascend and others to descend.

Yeats wrote: “Now that my ladder’s gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Jacob lay down and found a ladder. It began in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, but it also stretched to the heavens. Between heaven and the human heart, God has offered us a ladder.

The Writer, The Dog, and The Lesson

In his essay on Sir Walter Scott, C.S. Lewis paints a remarkable picture of a man in distress. Scott was in poor health. His wife had died three weeks before. He was under great financial pressure to finish his book. His diary records a “throttling sensation” which impelled him to tears. To make it all worse, he was kept up all night by a howling dog.

Lewis’ point is not about Scott’s distress but about his reaction. In his journal, he writes: “Poor cur! I dare say he had his distress, as I have mine.”

It is difficult enough to have sympathy for another when one is doing well. To have it when one’s own circumstances are trying – and when it is a dog keeping you up! – takes genuine goodness and soul-strength. The Shulchan Arukh teaches that even those who depend on public funds must themselves contribute to charity (Yoreh De’ah 248:1). One’s own misfortune is not a reason to neglect the sufferings of others. As Yeats writes to a child, “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” But we are adults and we can understand. And we can help to wipe those tears away.

Bad Preaching

In the 15th century book Eine Haqore, Joseph ibn Shem Tov tells of a self-regarding preacher. He began by telling the congregation that his talk would be divided into three parts: the first both he and they would understand. The second, only he would understand. The third, neither of them would understand. Shem Tov adds that most of the sermons he hears fall in the third category.

Sermons (or drashot) are as old as faith, and criticisms about sermons as old as sermons.

“A bad preacher, like the good rain, does not know when to stop,” complained Emerson, voicing a sentiment shared by many congregants throughout the centuries. For Trollope, “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.” Leon Modena in the 17th century said that there was thunder and lightning on Sinai because God knew that when Jews hear words of Torah, they fall asleep!

Words can uplift, and they can sedate. But to have great poems, as Whitman reminds us, there must be great readers. A sermon is a collaboration; it requires an adept speaker and an eager audience. Given both, words of Torah, through the magic medium of the human voice, can both instruct and inspire.


“Jewish” Time

Jewish events are notorious for starting late. As The Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann once said, “I tried my whole life to come late to a Jewish meeting and never succeeded.”

Conversely, Jewish law depends upon precision in time. Sabbaths and holidays have specific starting and ending times. Ritual observances such as mourning, have definite, time-bound cycles. We seem caught between the rigor of ritual and the languor of social occasions.

Perhaps each clock is a counterbalance to the other. After all, centuries of wandering do not always permit a fixed and insistent attitude towards time. Flexibility and patience are virtues cultivated by our uneasy history. Still we did not allow tribulation to override obligation. For all the uncertainty in the world, there was certainty in our souls. Our spiritual clocks remain fine tuned. Insistent upon the rhythms of our devotion, we also make allowances for the unpredictability of circumstance.

Of course, often it is a matter of finding parking.

Alone in the Desert

The God of Israel became real to the Israelites in the desert. A seemingly barren world gave birth to a people and a mission. To some however, the desert is not charged with meaning, but empty and frightening. Naturalist Edward Abbey from his book Desert Solitaire:

“Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of the primal desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse — its implacable indifference.”

For Abbey, the desert embodies indifference to humanity. For the Jews, it embodied the sculpting hand of God. Is your world silent, or charged with a sense of purpose? Is the cosmos implacably indifferent, or do the heavens “declare the glory of God (Ps. 19)?”


Why is it customary for a mourner to lead the prayer service? In his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier quotes Solomon Luria’s opinion that a mourner should lead because “the King of Kings prefers broken vessels.” This lovely formulation is based on a striking passage from the Midrash: “Rabbi Alexandri said: ‘If a person uses broken vessels, it is considered an embarrassment. But God seeks out broken vessels for His use, as it says, ‘God is the Healer of Shattered Hearts.’” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:2).

That we are more whole when broken is the paradox embodied in the Kotzker’s famous phrase that the only whole heart is a broken one. A well lived life is one in which we grow from pain, for the ills of existence are inseparable from its lessons. To live unscathed is to forfeit life’s richness for a counterfeit safety.

“Life breaks all of us,” Hemingway famously said, “and most of us are strong in the broken places.” The midrash’s wisdom is gentler, and deeper. Sometimes it is from weakness that we reach toward God, and while we may end up stronger, we surely grow wiser and closer to the center of our own souls.

Blessings and Curses

On Yom Kippur, the people of Sharon, a region subject to earthquakes, pleaded with God that their houses not become their graves. One way to understand this prayer is that our blessings not become our curses.

Wealth is a great blessing. When it brings with it ostentation, rapacious competition, empty acquisition, we have allowed a blessing to become a curse.

Freedom is a blessing. When we allow that freedom to lead to the unmooring of our values and character, it has become a curse.

Passion for the causes of the world is vital. When that passion for the causes outside our door leads us to neglect those in our home, to express love to strangers and treat those closest to us indifferently or cruelly, a blessing has become a curse.

We are approaching the New Year. It is a time for renewal. This is a good time for a prayer: we who have so many blessings should pray, in the tradition of the people of Sharon: Dear God, may our blessings not become our curses, and may we continue to be blessed.

Behind the Window

Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the premier philosopher of the twentieth century, led a difficult and often tortured life. In his biography, The Duty of Genius, Ray Monk quotes Wittgenstein explaining to his disapproving sister why despite his fabulous talents, he decided to become a teacher in a rural school:

“You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet.”

The Baal Shem Tov once used a similar image to explain how people sway and love in prayer, moving to music others cannot hear. Whether in prayer or in the motions of life, we often find that the elements strike differently on us than others can possibly imagine. We move through life with resistances that to others seem negligible or nonexistent.

No two people are exactly alike, and no two struggles exactly alike. Both the philosopher and the Rabbi point out that one cannot always feel one’s way into another’s soul. We can but trust, and help.



Which is true:
• “Nothing ventured nothing gained” or “fools rush in where angels fear to tread?”
• “He who hesitates is lost” or “look before you leap?”
• “Out of sight out of mind” or “absence makes the heart grow fonder”?

Two things, as Samuel Johnson said, imputed to the human heart may not both be logical, but they can both be true. Human beings embrace paradox, which is why faith is often paradoxical. Judaism understands the wisdom enunciated last century by Oscar Wilde, that a deep truth is anything the opposite of which is also a deep truth.

Therefore, our year is laced with paradoxes: Happiness in the midst of mourning, advice to cling to the past and never forfeit the future, certainty that we should expend all our efforts and energy on this world and yet never quite despair that there is something beyond it.

Asked what constitutes a true Jew, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki replied: “Upright kneeling, silent screaming, motionless dance.” Clasp all the sides of life whose raging inconsistencies will not allow us a smooth, untwisted path. Nothing is absolute — not our kneeling, our screaming, or our dance. For as we dance kneeling and scream, we stand upright, silent, motionless, in wonderment at the ambiguities and fruitfulness of God’s world.

Socrates and Abraham

The scholar of ancient Greek thought, F. Cornford, summarized Socrates claim to greatness as twofold. First, because of his discovery of the soul, and second, because Socrates fashioned a morality of spiritual aspiration, to take the place of the current morality of social restraint. Before him, the Sophists and others explained how to limit oneself, and live in harmony with what existed. Socrates, according to Cornford, reached far beyond that.

As we read the Torah, we see that the biblical characters indeed embody both ideals — that of social restraint and spiritual aspiration. The laws of the Bible are intended to guide one to live well with other human beings and with the world. Yet, it is animated by a belief in something greater than the world. The Torah depicts souls that yearn for something greater, for a connection to God.

The Bible does not fashion philosophic justifications for its directives. The characters seem far less self-conscious than the ancient Greeks. But in figures like Abraham, one-thousand years before Socrates, we see a noble soul aspiring for something higher than human beings had ever known.