Off the Pulpit


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Kindness and Closeness

Most people are courteous to those whom they barely know. We are gracious to the waiter, elevator operator, the bank teller. But character is judged on how we behave when it is difficult to be kind. In other words, how do we behave to those who are close?

When two mitzvot are before us, one rare and the other commonplace, which comes first? We might think the rare one. But there is a Jewish legal principle: tadir u’sheano tadir, tadir kodem: the frequently observed mitzvah takes precedence. It is not difficult to be enthused about the rare and special. The trick of life is to bring intensity to the commonplace.

The same principle is operative with people. Our first obligation to goodness is with our spouses, our children, our friends, our family. Taking them for granted violates the principle of tadir kodem — the frequent comes first. The stranger on text doesn’t matter more than your child across the table.

A good life is marked in part by the stability of its relationships. Do we give those close to us the attention we lavish on those who are passing and tangential in our lives? Everyone honors the special. Judaism teaches us to honor the everyday.


When the Israelites came to the red sea, it did not part. Even Moses’ entreaties to God could not get the seat to split. The Rabbis recount that one man, Nachshon Ben Amminadav, boldly leapt into the sea, and it parted. Like Curtis who flung himself into the breach in the Roman Senate, Nachshon proved that what mattered was the courage to act when others’ falter.

There are always good reasons to hesitate. Considerations of prudence, of fairness, of deference hold us back. Psychologists tell us that the greater the number of people who might respond, the less likely any individual is to take responsibility. So why did Nachshon leap into the sea while all of Israel stood at the bank? Because he knew that at decisive moments of history, to hope, dream or even pray is not enough. Deliberation is eclipsed by daring.

Herzl once told some friends: “I am not better nor more clever than any of you. But I remain undaunted and that is why the leadership belongs to me.” Among the children of Israel there were good people, wise people, even faithful people who cried out to God. But Nachshon jumped.

What Are The Jews?

Although the Nazis branded Jews an inferior race, Jews are not exactly a race. After all, one can convert to Judaism and one cannot convert to be of a different race. Yet they have some characteristics in common. Hmmm.

On the other hand, Jews aren’t exactly a religion. One isn’t born into a religion, and if tomorrow, I suddenly decided I didn’t believe anything taught by Judaism at all, I would still be a Jew. Again, hmmm.

On the third hand, there are Jews of every skin color and from all corners of the world, so no single sweeping statement seems to work. Except…

Jews are a religious family. You can join family. You don’t leave your family by disliking it or disagreeing with it, but you can leave it by joining another family. That is historically how Judaism has worked. Theoretically one remains a Jew, but in practice a Jew who has chosen another religion is written out of the communal compact.

A religious family. That works. Not a category familiar in America, but nonetheless, that is what we are. Now, let’s eat.

The True Disciple

There is an old story about two students who studied with the same great Rabbi. After the Rabbi died, they separated and did not see each other for many years. One of them meticulously followed all he had learned from his teacher. The other developed his own interpretations as well, and in many matters diverged from what they had learned.

After many years the two met. The first said to his former friend, “I don’t understand. We had such a magnificent mentor. Why didn’t you live as I have, and remain faithful to the teachings of our Master?” The second answered, “I did. Indeed, I followed his way more scrupulously than you. You see, he grew up and left his Rabbi. I grew up and left mine.”

If we are fortunate enough to have figures in private or public life whom we admire, we will naturally share many of their teachings and inclinations. Yet in the end we must each forge our own path in this world. No one else can live our lives for us. We learn what we can from our teachers, and then leave them to become ourselves.


He Didn’t Lie!

Two stories comment on one another. Once R. Levi Yizkhak of Berditchev, known as “the lover of Israel,” saw a man smoking on Yom Kippur. He said, “You must not have realized that today is Yom Kippur.” “No,” the man responded, “I know it is Yom Kippur.” “Then,” said the Rebbe, “you must not have realized that it is forbidden to smoke on Yom Kippur.” “No,” said the man, “I know it is forbidden.”

The Rebbe turned to the heavens and said, “See how good are Your people, O God. Even though I found him smoking on Yom Kippur, he refuses to lie!”

An echo of that story is told about the great Hebrew poet, Chaim Nahman Bialik. Once the Rabbi of the town walked by the house and saw him inside with two friends, smoking on Shabbat. The Rabbi walked in. One friend said, “I’m sorry, I forgot it was Shabbat.” The second said, “I’m sorry, I forgot it was forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” Bialik said, “I’m sorry – I forgot to close the curtains.” We can imagine R. Levi Yizkhak saying of the famed poet – you see God, he wouldn’t lie!

Eternity in Every Instant

Heschel used to tell the story of the boy in cheder who was reading the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Year after year they read the story, yet each time this boy was frightened – what if Isaac is hurt? The other students made fun of him – after all, they said, you know how it ends, we read it before! But the teacher said no, this student is reading it properly, because the Torah should be happening anew every time.

To be part of the Jewish tradition is to view time differently. Events that happened in the past did not only happen in the past; they are always occurring. The revelation at Sinai both occurred and occurs. Creation, as the prayers tell us, is daily renewed. There is creation every single day, every moment.

A faithful Jew lives in an omnipresent now. Abraham can visit the Sukkah in 2022, every Seder night we are freed from Egypt and each Shabbat God ceases from fashioning the world. Eternity collapses into each moment and you live both now and forever every day of your life.

Complaining About Miracles

As soon as the people leave Egypt, they begin to complain. Moses, frustrated, asks “Why do you try the Lord?” The word for “try” is “tenasun” which is Hebrew has the same two letters, nun and samach, that spell “nes” or miracle. Moses is reminding the people that they just experienced an astounding miracle, and they are turning it into a complaint.

In our own day we understand the dynamic. When the pandemic first broke out people prayed for a vaccine. Miraculously the vaccines were created and suddenly, the distribution, availability – indeed the very speed with which they were created – has for some turned a miracle into a grievance. It seems as if there is no beneficence and no blessing that human beings will not quarrel about.

Whether it is the end of slavery, the creation of Israel, or the gifts of modern medicine, perhaps we are not programmed to simply be thankful. Every nes, miracle, turns into a nisayon, trial. But thank God the miracles keep coming, and we may yet learn to turn from grumbling to gratitude.

When Nothing Goes Right

Every age brings its difficulties. It is true that with all the advantages of our age, it can still seem as if everything is going wrong. It may or may not help to know that this is not a new sentiment. From the beginning of time people sat themselves by the fireside and said, “Absolutely nothing worked for me today.”

If nothing is going your way, the least others can do is offer sympathy and company. You aren’t alone: Abraham Ibn Ezra, famed biblical commentator and poet from 12th century Spain, lamented:

If I made shrouds
No one would ever die.
If I sold lamps
The sun would shine all night long.

We all have those times when the world seems magically arrayed against us. Don’t despair. Keep at it. After all, Ibn Ezra didn’t make shrouds or lamps, but poems – and they’ve lasted for centuries.