Off the Pulpit


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A Final Musing, With Thanks

Thirty years ago, I began publishing 200-word columns, first in print in the NY Jewish Week and then online. In 2004, an early collection of them was published by Behrman House called “Floating Takes Faith.” Now as I step down as Senior Rabbi of Sinai, it is time to bring this column, having written some 1,500 of them, to an end.

From the beginning, I aimed at the refrigerator. Perhaps this or that musing would be stuck on the door as a helpful thought. If this column gets pasted to a refrigerator – or a computer, or a bathroom mirror – it will be as a reminder that all things, good and bad, must end.

It has been a great pleasure sharing thoughts each week, and God willing, I will continue to do so in many other ways. For now, however, these columns called “Musings” or “Off the Pulpit” have run their course. I hang my kippah up in the hope that they have enlightened, amused or even inspired a bit over the decades, and with deep thanks for your kindness – B’vracha, with Blessing – David Wolpe

What Our Adversaries Teach

Right before Moses strikes the rock, the sin that will prevent him from entering the land of Israel, he yells at the people: “Listen now, rebels (hamorim)” [Num. 20:10]. Yet that same word, morim, can mean “teachers.”

Our antagonists can also be our teachers. The Rabbis have long taught what psychologists advise as well: When someone irritates you, annoys you, infuriates you, there is a lesson in that experience. We are often resistant to learning from people we don’t like or statements we find oppositional. But sometimes the measure of our resistance is also a measure of the importance of the lesson.

In Pirke Avoth, Ben Zoma counsels: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” It is easy to learn from those we like. Yet sometimes the lessons of our antagonists are the longest lasting.

Thoughts and Prayers

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” What can this mean in the wake of something horrible? If prayer is a way of changing the world, it is too late. What good can prayers do the victims now?

The 17th-century Rabbi Leon de Modena asked us to imagine watching a man pull his boat to shore. If you were confused, you might think that he was really pulling the shore to his boat. People have much the same confusion about prayer: Some believe that you are pulling God closer to you. But in fact, heartfelt prayer pulls you closer to God.

Seen this way, prayer is a sturdy rope of solidarity, one that acknowledges that we are in this together. In a free society when something terrible occurs, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, few are guilty but all are responsible. Prayer says: “I am with you. I might have done more. Your pain is not separate from my deeds and my life. I pray that you will have comfort, and that I, along with others who know of your suffering, will work to make a world in which such pain is banished.”

Poets and Armies

I spent my junior year of college at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. There I studied English and Scottish literature and wrote a letter home to my parents about how I had fallen in love with the poetry of Byron and Burns and Wordsworth and the canon of literature I was learning.

My father wrote back a beautiful letter that I have sadly lost. But I remember his saying that, pleased as he was that I had discovered the great poets, “Remember that English poetry became the poetry of the world on the backs of British soldiers. We too had out Wordsworths; they were named Yehuda Halevy, Ibn Gabirol, Tchernichowsky and Bialik. What we did not have was an army to bring their words to the world.”

In the end, words outlast armies. The thought and poetry and art of the Jewish people is deep and rich in beauty and wisdom. Rediscover its resonance: As poet Nelly Sachs wrote: “open your eyes/where a new star/ has already left its reflection.”


75 Years of Home

The Torah begins with the letter bet (ב‎), the same letter that begins bayit in Hebrew, home. Some have taken this as a signal – here is a home in the Torah. Yet it is an uneasy home, full of wandering, perplexity and challenge.

Such unease is part of the true nature of home. Commenting on the phrase ger toshav, “stranger-resident,” the Maggid of Dubno explains we should all feel both comfortable in the world and out of place in it, like residents and like strangers. Echoing this insight is the philosopher Adorno: “The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home.”

Israel is not the perfect home, but it is the Jewish home. As we celebrate its 75th birthday, with all its challenges, we say a prayer of gratitude and of hope.

The Scars to Prove It

“You shall arise as a lion each morning to do the will of your Creator.” That stirring sentence opens the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law. It reminds us that at the heart of our tradition is the conviction that there are things worth fighting for.

We all cherish peace, but we know that there will always be battles for ideals that are noble, and everyone of conscience must be prepared for such fights.

In Alan Paton’s book, “Ah, But your Land is Beautiful,” there is a conversation between two men who risked their lives fighting for racial justice in South Africa. One says that they may bear many scars for the effort, and the other answers: “Well, I look at it this way. When I get up there, the Great Judge will say, ‘Where are your scars?’ And if I haven’t any, He will ask, ‘Were there no causes worthy of getting scars?”

Arise like a lion and bear proudly the scars from noble struggle.

Old and Young

The ancient world was long ago, but it was not ancient. Rather, it was when the world was very young. We are the old ones hurtling toward the encroaching end, not the bright beginning, of human history. In his foreword to “Athens and Jerusalem,” philosopher Lev Shestov writes “a foreword is basically always a post-word.” We write a foreword after finishing; the old world is young, and time is flooded with paradox.

The Newtonian world was a straight arrow world, with the past remaining firmly in the past, and the future unfolding like the credits at the opening of a movie — exciting, unknown, and uni-directional. Now we are told that time has creases and folds, it is indeterminate and all at once, and it is different in different dimensions.

The sages tell us that in Torah there is no chronology. Each story bears on every other story; all is simultaneous — Abraham stands at Sinai and Moses visits Rabbi Akiva. The world of the Torah, like the world as science teaches us to understand it, is far more fantastic and paradoxical than we first imagined.

The Telling

In “The Arabian Nights,” Scheherazade saves her own life by weaving so entrancing a tale that the Sultan keeps her alive night after night to hear the next chapter.

By our stories we live. Haggadah means “telling.” On Passover night, we tell the story. As the writer Philip Pullman said, “Thou shalt not’ might reach the head but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.”

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav said that most people tell stories to put others to sleep, but his stories are to wake people up. The Jewish people tell stories to rouse our souls to wonder, to spur memory, to reignite the sparks of our people. In every land, through countless languages, we carried our chronicles and fables, adding stories with every step.

On the night of the Seder, we will touch each other’s hearts as we reenact the rituals of our ancestors. We will hear again the anguish of our history and the promises of God. For thousands of years, we have told the tale; from parents to children its words have lifted our hearts and stirred our souls.


In Every Generation

From the villages of Eastern Europe comes an old, classic joke. Shmuel comes in the door with a sad face, telling Esther that the Czar has decreed that every Jew must convert and become Christian. “What shall we do?” cries Esther. “I don’t think we have a choice,” laments Shmuel, “we have to convert.”

The next day, Shmuel comes in the door with joy shining in his face. “Esther! Esther! Guess what – the decree has been reversed. We don’t have to be Christians anymore!” Esther gives Shmuel a rueful look. “That’s wonderful, but can we wait to convert back until after Passover?”

For the homemaker, Passover can be a LOT of work. There is meticulous cleaning, different pots and pans and dishes, and all sorts of strictures on food. In the end, however, contrary to the joke, it might be the most beloved Jewish holiday. Because Passover also sends beautiful messages of freedom and redemption, it is filled with family and expresses the deep beauty of Jewish belief. As we gather around the Seder table next week, the fortunate among us feel the reward for all that work – we are Jews, and we are free.

Creation, Revelation, Redemption

Jewish tradition is built around three axes: Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. Traditionally, these have been seen as making the world, giving the Torah and coming of the Messiah. Each also tells us something about our attitude and conduct along the way.

Creation reminds us that we are stewards of the garden. The Rabbis explain that God said after creation, if we destroy this place there will be none to restore it after us. The fate of life on this earth is largely in our hands.

Revelation teaches the Jewish people the responsibility of relationship and the moral order. Through law and story we are tied to one another and to God. The words and endless implications of Torah are our gift to generations and legacy to the world.

Redemption is the continuing call to heal a broken world. We are charged with uplifting the sparks, helping those who despair or are in need, innovating in ways to move humanity forward, summoning the courage needed to make peace. Creation, Revelation, and Redemption – the story of a past, a program for the present, and a vision of the future.