Off the Pulpit


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A Remarkable Interpretation

From Ancient Greece comes a story of rival artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who competed to create the most realistic painting. Zeuxis drew grapes so realistic birds flew down to peck at them. Parrhasius brought his picture in covered in cloth. Reaching out to lift the cloth, Zeuxis was stunned to discover he had lost the contest — the cloth was really his rival’s painting.

The Jewish version of this tale? In the story of Joseph, as he languishes in an Egyptian prison, two of Pharaoh’s imprisoned servants come to him. The cupbearer is given a favorable interpretation. The Baker tells Joseph that he dreamt of three baskets on his head out of which birds were eating. Joseph prophesies his death.

How did he know? The Maggid of Dubno explains: once an artist created a painting of a man carrying bread. The bread looked so real that birds pecked at the canvas. When one observer commented that the painting was perfect, another responded, “No, if it were perfect, the man would be realistic, too, and the birds would be afraid to get close. They can tell he is artificial, and so they attack the bread.”

Similarly, said the Maggid, Joseph realized that the birds in the baker’s dream ate the bread because the man did not scare them off, for he was not really alive.

Foolish Advice

“The first service a child doth his father is to make him foolish.” So wrote the 17th century poet George Herbert.

In the Midrash, we are told of a man who left a strange provision in his will (Mid. Ps. 92:13). The will left everything to his only child, his son, but conditionally: the son could not inherit “until he became a fool.”

No one could figure out the meaning of the will, including the son’s Rabbi. So he went to consult a greater authority, Rabbi Joshua ben Karcha. There he saw through the window that Rabbi Joshua was on all fours, a reed sticking out of his mouth, being pulled along by a child. He soon realized it was Rabbi Joshua ben Karcha’s small daughter and the rabbi was pretending to be a horse.

When asked about the will, the sage instantly responded: “What you just saw is your answer.” The will meant the son could not inherit until he had children. For living with adults alone can induce a seriousness that is really foolish.

Show Me the Money?

The Talmud tells of a flute in the Temple made of reeds that survived from the days of Moses: “The King issued a command that it be plated with gold, but it no longer sounded pleasant. They removed the plating and the sound was as pleasant as before (Arakhin 10b).”

The darkness that befell Egypt during the plagues is called “thick as a coin.” Money can evoke darkness. One can see through a window, but cover the glass with silver, and it creates a mirror in which you see only yourself. These examples from the Jewish tradition teach an ever-relevant truth: wealth is not only an opportunity but an obstacle. It can help the world or block our vision of one another.

Judaism is a tradition in which, one day of the week, we are not even supposed to touch money. The Yiddish proverb teaches: “Burial shrouds are made without pockets.” Gold stops at the grave. What remains is not how much we made, but what it made of us.


With Open Eyes

The Mai Hashiloah (R. Mordecai Joseph Leiner, d. 1854) points to a fascinating difference between Moses and Isaac. Moses died “with his eyes undimmed” (Deut. 34:7). For Isaac, “his eyes were dim” (Gen. 27:1).

The Mei Hashiloah explains that in Isaac’s life, the major events, the Akedah and the reversal of the blessing with Jacob and Esau, God’s hand is not obvious. Isaac is not told and does not know why or how God is involved. On the other hand, Moses is constantly informed of the divine plan – he is always awake, his eyes never dimmed.

In our lives, sometimes we feel God’s presence and in other times, only in retrospect do we see a pattern. The world moves in our vision between clarity and opacity, and we are part Isaac and part Moses. The Torah comes along to help us see more clearly, to open our eyes.

To Learn and to Labor

Judaism values study — that is no surprise. But it also values engagement in the world. In the Talmud (Ber. 35b), there is a classic dispute: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says one should spend all of one’s time in Torah study, and Rabbi Yishmael says one should combine study with a worldly occupation. A later sage, Abaye, laconically sums up the dispute by noting that “many have followed the path of Rabbi Simon Bar Yochai and were not successful.”

At times, we draw too sharp a dichotomy between book learning and work. Worldly enterprise helps us understand the thoughts and stories written in books. The tales of the Torah grow deeper as we move along in the world. Who can understand Jacob’s labors for Laban who has not themselves labored for a goal? Who can identify with Moses’ pangs of leadership if they have not themselves sought to lead?

To learn and to labor together is more fulfilling than either alone. We should all learn to be of the school of Rabbi Yishmael.

The Curious Commandment

The Tenth Commandment teaches us not to covet. How can emotion be legislated?

Our tradition offers many answers. One points to the idea that you only covet that which you believe you can have. Whatever belongs to someone else should be considered strictly off limits, and if you think of it that way, you will not covet it. More radically, one Chasidic response reminds us that in the Torah, they are not called the Ten Commandments, but Aseret HaDevarim — the Ten Sayings. The first, for example, “I am the Lord your God,” does not exactly fit the structure of the English “commandment.”

Therefore, Rabbi Yechiel of Zlachov teaches, “Thou shalt not covet” is not a commandment. It is a promise. If you live your life according to the other nine devarim, you will not want for anything. While others may be tormented by desires, you will feel grateful and blessed. You will not, as Shakespeare wrote, find yourself desiring “this man’s art and that man’s scope, with what I most enjoy contented least.” The Tenth Commandment, then, is the reward for observing the other nine — a little inner peace.

In Defense of Sacrifices

Reading of sacrifices in the Bible, many are mortified to think that ancient Israelites would slaughter animals at the Temple. It seems primitive, bloody, even barbaric. As someone who has not eaten chicken or meat in over thirty years, I nonetheless want to defend the practice.

When we buy meat, most of us do so after the animal has been killed, sliced up, packaged, and priced. We never confront the reality of our purchase or of our appetites. We don’t see the actual butchery and don’t think about it. The killing itself, even when it is kosher, has nothing like the sense of sanctity and awe that surrounds sacrifice in the Temple. Those animals were prayed over, offered up with awe, and most of those sacrifices were eaten as well, by the Priests.

So which is better: A distant slaying followed by a sanitized presentation or a sacred acknowledgment that all life is given by God and taken with a consciousness of God? As a vegetarian, I prefer the latter.


What’s In a Name?

When God approaches Moses at the burning bush, Moses is very reluctant to go to the people. He asks God “When I come to the Israelites and say, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’ and they ask me ‘what is God’s name’ what shall I say?” God answers with the famously enigmatic, “Ehyeh-Asher- Eyeh”: I am that I am.

Many interpretations have been offered concerning God’s name. What is not so often noticed is that, having asked for God’s name — Moses never repeats it to the Israelites.

Why does Moses ask? He has been surrounded by inconstancy in his life. He is born under the sign of death. He grows up in Pharaoh’s palace but has to flee. He has no true home. What Moses needs to know is that God will not abandon him. He is not asking for the sake of the Israelites as much as for his own sake. God reassures him — I am that I am. What I am today I will be tomorrow, and next year, into eternity.

Moses pleads for constancy. At the outset of his mission, God promises faithfulness to God’s singular servant.

The Prayer of Natural Beauty

In his later years, the renowned Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, suddenly announced that he was going to Switzerland to climb in the Alps. “Why?” asked his astonished students. “Because when I come face to face with the Creator of the universe,” mused Hirsch, “I know He will look down at me and say ‘So, Shimshon, did you see My Alps?'”

Appreciating beauty is an act of devotion. That is why Judaism contains blessings for seeing beautiful mountains, the ocean, a rainbow, and other natural sights.

The Talmud advises that one should pray only in a room which has windows. To sing to God and not see God’s world is a contradiction. The word “chuppah” in the marriage ceremony once referred to the traditional covering of the bride and groom — Chuppat Shamayim — the canopy of the heavens, what the poet Housman called “the star pavilioned sky.”

Humanity begins in a garden. Judaism continues using natural metaphors: the Torah is likened to a tree, the Talmud to a sea, the human spirit to wind. When we feel the cycle of seasons and are awestruck by natural majesty and beauty, we are offering a deep, authentic prayer to God.


There are plants in Hawaii that are endangered because their natural pollinator is rare or extinct. People climb mountains and go from plant to plant pollinating them by hand.

In certain periods of our history, an analogous process occurred. Scholars became rare in certain cities. Other scholars, the natural pollinators, would travel from community to community, bringing learning and light. They would climb mountains, both literally and metaphorically, to ensure that the nectar of Torah was spread.

Modernity has blessed us with both learned individuals and the means to transmit that learning both near and far. All the apparatus of modern communications, from printing to email, makes distribution of learning easy. The question for Jewry is not the pollinators but the receivers. The wisdom is accessible if Jews will take the time to learn. Pollinators can climb to good purpose only if there are plants.