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The Seldon of Jewish History

Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic “The Foundation Trilogy” is about a man named Seldon who, envisioning the coming apocalypse, creates a haven to build a great encyclopedia of human knowledge. This seemingly simple task hides a much grander scheme, and the underlying message is his abiding faith that knowledge coupled with wisdom can save us from the abyss.

There was a Seldon in Jewish history. As the Talmud tells the story, while Jerusalem burned, Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin. There he entreated of the Roman emperor Vespasian to give him “Yavneh and its sages.” In other words, he wanted to build a colony, like Seldon’s planet Terminus, to preserve the knowledge of the ages.

Like Asimov’s fictional hero, Yohanan ben Zakkai had a greater aim in mind than Vespasian could imagine. He prepared for a time when there would be no more empire, but the Jewish people, its tradition intact, would bring the essential message of God to the surviving world.

Through scientific wizardry, Seldon returns periodically through the novels to speak to posterity. So too Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai and his contemporaries speak to us through the pages of the Talmud, the encyclopedia of knowledge, and wisdom preserved in that fateful moment.

The Tower and the Temple

Why did the people of Babel build their tower to the sky? The prevailing interpretation is that they were afflicted with hubris, the sin of pride. But another interpretation is preserved in Jewish commentaries. The story of the Tower is preceded by Noah’s flood. Imagine how terrified the people of Babel must have been. They were the post-apocalyptic generation. Perhaps the sky would fall again.

In this reading, the Tower of Babel arose not from arrogance but from fear. It was designed to be a pillar to hold up the sky. Perhaps with the tower holding aloft the heavens, the world would not be destroyed again.

Often it is not our appetites that cause us to sin, but our fears. Dread moves people to manipulate the world, often in negative ways, so they need not confront that which terrifies them. The generation of Babel needed to trust each other more and treat each other better. They needed to build society, not structures, to save them. This week when we observe Tisha B’av and recall the destruction of the Temple, we remember that no building can survive fear, division and conflict among the people who are supposed to sustain it.



In an age of polarization, it is useful to remember how often great spirits have avoided the bitterness that poisons our discourse.

“With malice toward none with charity toward all.” Lincoln avoided the recriminations one might have expected in the wake of a savage civil war. The same majestic spirit was apparent in Nelson Mandela’s demeanor after his release: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” In the Torah, we read of Moshe’s self-possession in the face of others who seemingly usurp his role by suddenly acting as prophets. Rather than being jealous or angry, Moshe takes the news calmly, simply wishing that more of God’s children would be prophets.

Judaism teaches us the art of overcoming – overcoming anger, bitterness, hateful words toward others. In an age that encourages anger, we can learn enlarge our souls, calm our spirits, and rise above.

How to Feel Bad About Yourself

Is believing the best about yourself always a virtue?

The greatest religious figures are often those most convinced of their inadequacies. A man once approached A.J. Heschel and said “I love my family, I pay my taxes, I keep a good job. What do I need to repent for? I am a pretty good person.” Heschel replied, “Good for you, but the same is not true of me. I am always thinking the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing. I need God, and I need to repent.” Somehow, I believe that the goodness of Heschel outshone that of the more self-satisfied gentleman.

What is it to have a sense of sin? Mordecai Kaplan gave an excellent account: “The best we can do,” he wrote, “is generally much better than we actually do. To be troubled by that fact is to have a sense of sin.” We could use more of that sense; paradoxically, sometimes believing one is not so good makes us better.


Invisible Footsteps

Sometimes we know things not by their presence but by their effects. In building the periodic table, Medeleyev filled in gaps based on what he had already figured out. Certain elements, though he had not actually found them, had to be there given what he had already discovered. Similarly, for early astronomers, the orbit of Uranus could only be made consistent by assuming the existence of another planet, which was not spotted until much later. A modern example is the proghorn antelope, the fastest runner in North America. It runs much too fast for any possible predator, easily outrunning coyotes or mountain lions. Apparently, 15,000 years ago, the continent was filled with saber-toothed tigers and panthers that ran like the wind. We know of their speed only by the effect that remains in their absence.

The Talmud often preserves one side of the argument, and the student must reconstruct what the other side must have been. Having only one voice, study aims to hear the other side through the silence. Unknown elements, unseen planets and unheard voices leave traces. Nothing completely disappears; all that is and has ever been leaves footprints on the universe.

White Lies

Are you allowed to lie? The Bible tells us to “stay far from falsehood” (Ex. 23:7). But the Talmud records an argument between the school of Hillel and Shammai concerning whether one should praise a bride as beautiful if she is, well, less than beautiful. The school of Shammai says no, and that of Hillel says yes, but the Hillelites try to escape the contradiction by insisting that on her wedding day, every bride is beautiful.

In the Torah, God misquotes Sarah’s words to Abraham, tactfully leaving out Sarah’s claim that her husband is too old to have a child (Gen. 18:12-13). The value of Shalom Bayit, domestic harmony, overrode the value of honest reporting. Similarly, the Rabbis tell approvingly of Aaron’s willingness to dissemble in order to ensure peace between friends who quarrel.

God’s seal, teaches the midrash, is truth. But peace and decency are also high values. Weighing tenderness and honesty in the mix is a not easy. In a time when people exaggerate events to maximize conflict, we might err on the side of minimizing conflict. Or we can combine the advice of Hillel and Shammai and follow the example of Jean Cocteau, the French artist who, in declining a dinner invitation, sent a telegram reading: “Regret cannot come. Lie to follow.”

Turning Away

On either side of the ark in the Temple were two keruvim, delicately carved golden angels. In the book of Exodus (25:20), we are told that they are to face each other. In the book of 2 Chronicles (3:13), it is recorded that they faced away from each other.

No gesture is more powerful than turning toward or turning away. There are moments in our lives when we face another and moments when we turn aside. The keruvim symbolized periods of intimacy with God and periods of distance. At the heart of the Temple was a reminder that closeness alternates with detachment.

We should not underestimate the power of movement. A lifetime of distance can be remedied by turning toward another. Even the deepest love can be damaged by turning away.

One translation of Psalm 103:12 is, “As far as east is from west have our sins distanced us from God.” How far is east from west, asked the Kotzker Rebbe? At first, it seems it is a whole world away. But actually, if you face west, only you need to do is turn around. Teshuva, repentance, is turning until, like the keruvim in the ark, we face each other.


At Home in Torah

Why does the Torah begin with a bet? The question receives many answers in Jewish tradition. One common answer is that since bet is the second letter, it shows there is no true beginning to study; it is an everlasting enterprise. Elie Wiesel answers it this way: “Bet is a house [both because of its shape and because it begins the word Bayit, home]… The Book of Books is a shelter, a dwelling place. A place in which men and women laugh and weep, read and write, work and sleep. A place in which people love one another before they start quarreling — or the other way around. In other words, it is a home.”

To study Torah is to enter a world in which we can be at home. Like home it invites us to reenter, again and again. Like home, it is sometimes uncomfortable, too close or suddenly alien to us. Like home, at times it forces us to live with people who irritate or upset us. But always it calls us back. It is both a spur and a refuge. Study Torah. Come home.

Your Own Two Feet

“For God brought about the victory. Once Beowulf had struggled to his feet, the holy and omniscient ruler of the sky easily settled the issue in favor of the right.”

What is striking about those lines from the renowned medieval poem Beowulf is how they embody the idea that God helps Beowulf once the warrior struggles to his feet. Beowulf must initiate his own salvation. God responds to human self-assertion.

That same idea is beautifully expressed one thousand years before in God’s message to the prophet Ezekiel. When in the beginning of the book (2:1) Ezekiel begins to prophecy, God says to him: “Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak to you.”

For Ezekiel to prophesize, he must rise to his full height as a man.

Deep faith always involves an element of submission — rampant egos block relationship. But it does not demand dissolution of the self. One can stand strong without arrogance and bow without being broken.

Hatred’s Door

Years ago on a trip to Paris with my then 16-year-old daughter, we visited a score of museums: The Louvre, of course, the magnificent Quai Branly, the Rodin museum, the Pompidou center, and the Hugo house. Each had a small if cursory security check. Then we sought out the small, very fine Jewish museum in the Marais. Here, we passed through a double glass door that did not allow you to continue to the front until the back had closed. The saddest part was my daughter’s insouciance. “Did you notice the security?” I asked. She nodded, “Dad, it’s the Jewish museum.” There was nothing more to be said.

Antisemitism is a protean hatred. Jews have been hated for being communists and capitalists, for being weak and for being strong, for living in others’ lands and for establishing their own, for reasons theological, historical, and purely visceral. The closing of a museum door is a small but potent reminder that hostility toward Jews still infects the world’s bloodstream–indeed in our day, it is rising once again. It is a shattering moment when one realizes that one’s child takes that painful reality for granted.