Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Celebrate your birthday by counting your blessings and finding a tzedakah (charity) to match each one. Jack Riemer (paraphrase)
Rabbi Jack Riemer is an inexhaustible fountain of wisdom. Among other things, his sermon-writing is legendary. Another rabbi once said to me he was tempted to steal Rabbi Riemer’s trash just to get the sermon drafts he threw away. Of course, it’s not necessary – he is as generous as he is prolific.
A long time ago, he made the suggestion I cited, and I jotted it down in notes I kept of smart things people have said. I rediscovered the idea when I was going through some old files while I was trying to decide how to celebrate my big birthday on August 10. Inspired by this notion, I sat down to make a list of seventy charitable organizations that had been a blessing to me. It was not hard to do, though I am sure I left some out.
I then wrote a note to each one, enclosed a check for a very modest $18, and sent them off to arrive on or about my seventieth birthday.
Just to avoid insult to anyone, each of the recipients was a blessing to me personally at one or many points in my life. There are a lot of synagogues, most of which are nowhere near where I live today. There are plenty of groups that have morphed into something completely different than when I was connected to them. And in one case at least, my blessing is not available to others; Loretto Hospital no longer has a maternity department. You can’t get born there anymore.
My choice of how to commemorate my milestone is not meant to criticize those who encourage others to donate to a chosen cause. Even if social media companies get a few pennies from every such donation, there is value added from the generosity of spirit that motivates the suggestion and the response.
The point of sharing this with you is not to make myself look good. The small donation means very little to any recipient, and I am just fortunate to have the resources to share with others in this way. It is not even to lift up Rabbi Riemer, though he unquestionably deserves it. Instead, it is to encourage you to take stock of your own blessings and find a way to acknowledge them with a note, a call, a gift, even a prayer of gratitude. The satisfaction of counting your blessings, cliché though it seems, can see you through hard times and elevate the good ones. In my case, acknowledging my age and recognizing that I have arrived at it qualify as both.
Happy birthday to me.
Adat Ari El
Agudas Achim Congregation of Northern VA
American Civil Liberties Union
American Jewish Congress
American Jewish University
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State
Bend the Arc
Beth El Hebrew Congregation
Beth Hillel B'nai Emunah
B'nai Israel Congregation
Charles E Smith Jewish Day School
CLAL / Rabbis Without Borders
Clergy Leadership Incubator
Danny Siegel c/o The Good People Fund
Faith and Politics Institute
Friday Morning Music Club
Gesher Jewish Day School
Good Faith Media
Hebrew University (AFHU)
Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia
Jewish Funeral Directors Assn.
Jewish Publication Society
Jewish Theological Seminary/Rabbinic Training Institute
Loretto Hospital Foundation
National Council of Jewish Women
New Trier Scholarship Fund
Religious Action Center
Scholarship Fund of Alexandria
Shoulder to Shoulder
Sutton Place Synagogue
Temple Ramat Zion
Temple Rodef Shalom
The Forward Association
The George Washington University
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism/USY
University of Connecticut (UConn Foundation)
University of Virginia
Virginia Theological Seminary
Weinstein JCC Richmond VA
Westminster Presbyterian Church
World Central Kitchen
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everybody hates the Jews. Tom Lehrer
It’s the big laugh line in a sardonically hysterical song – “National Brotherhood Week.” Tom Lehrer satirizes the artifice constructed (and later abandoned) to pretend that we can all just get along. Rich and poor, Black and White, New Yorkers and Puerto Ricans are all at odds, and in recordings of his performances of this song you can hear the uncomfortable laughter of recognition from the audience beneath the tinkling of the piano. And then comes the big laugh line, sung by the Jewish math professor with the wicked insight.
The speech and drama team from Evanston High School (with whom my own New Trier team shared a bus) loved to sing this song on the way to tournaments. I must have heard it fifty times over the years, and each time the lyric in question was sung with particular gusto, followed by laughter that mystified me because all those kids had sung it themselves so many times. And so many of them were Jews!
I was fortunate to have a rich Jewish upbringing and a home in which the customs, rituals and values of Judaism were central. I won’t say that everything positive in my life had a Jewish element to it, but almost every Jewish element in my life was positive. (Except fasting. Hated it then, hate it now.) Even the devastation I felt as I learned about the Holocaust and other tragedies before and since came with a certain lack of comprehension about why it seemed that everybody hates the Jews.
Eventually I lost patience with the hatred and decided I was unwilling simply to ignore it. I will admit to some small pleasure in watching people wriggle uncomfortably when they were confronted for intentional bigotry (like the young woman who asked if she could “Jew me down” on the price of a waterbed I was selling) or for bias of which they were unaware (like the use of “Pharisee” as a pejorative).
Ironically, it was my own evolution on the subject of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews that set me free from my own constant worry about the persistence of Jew-hatred. Here’s how it went. At first, I believed that the marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew was a betrayal of the Jew’s identity. Then, I came to believe it was a threat to the future of the Jewish people. Then, as I realized that for every Jew who married “out of” their tradition, a non-Jew also married “out of” their tradition, I understood that those marriages were overwhelmingly factual rather than political statements for both families. And at this point in my life, I understand that the prevalence of intermarriage (and the embrace of Jewish partners by non-Jewish families) means that there are more people who love Jews than hate us. And setting aside everything else about intermarriage (just do me the rhetorical favor, please), that evolution in my thinking has persuaded me that while some people are haters, it is most certainly not the case that everybody hates the Jews.
Do you think you know where I am going? You probably do not.
There is without doubt still antisemitism in the world, and a lot of it. But I cannot think of a worse reason to cling to a personal Jewish identity than the idea, promoted by too many Jewish organizations explicitly and implicitly, that people will hate you for it anyway, so you might as well embrace it. That attitude is only one small tick above the pathetic adage popular among some Jews, “scratch a gentile and you will find an antisemite.”
Not every act of antagonism – including violence – that has a Jewish victim is motivated by antisemitism. Yet the intensity with which the accusation is leveled says more about the accuser than the perpetrator. The condemnable shooting in Highland Park, Illinois on the Fourth of July 2022 is a notable example. The murderer grew up blocks away from the site of the crime, had difficulties with local law enforcement and a variety of residents, and fired randomly into a crowd, murdering seven (two of whom were Jewish) and then headed to Wisconsin expecting to shoot up another town with a smaller Jewish population. But because Highland Park has a large Jewish population, the speculation that the shooter was after the Jews was dominant, especially in the Jewish press. And I write these words as a proud Jew, unafraid of being identified as such.
And not every attack on the State of Israel is motivated by Jew-hatred either. (At this point, I am almost obligated to include the phrase “but some certainly are” lest I be accused of minimizing the problem.) The insistence of some individuals and groups to equate being opposed to Israel’s conduct or policies with being opposed to Jews strikes me as a desperate attempt to frighten Jews to remain in or reenter the fold. And I write these words as a proud Zionist, unafraid of being identified as such.
I still laugh at Tom Lehrer’s lyrics even as a I still wonder, more than half a century later, at the enthusiasm of the Evanston HS forensics team for them. But not everybody hates the Jews. We should save our outrage for those who actually do.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Here, I am just about seventy years old. Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah
For some things, you have to wait a lifetime. I have attended Passover seders from before I can remember, and at each one, this incidental remark by an ancient sage was part of the telling of the Exodus. It is not clear if the rabbi was indeed 69 or if his reference is to the presumed “years of a person’s life” mentioned in Psalm 90 (“eighty if granted the strength”). Whichever it is, the point of his remark is the same – it is never too late to learn something new.
Whatever the case, for the first and only time, when I recited this sentence this past spring, I was just about seventy years old, quite literally. There have been other milestones of recognition in my life (and I have written about them), but this one reaches farther back into my own history than any other. It is also a destination which I have measured, incrementally by the year, from the unimaginable to the inevitable to the immediate.
I have always cautioned people not to take the numbering of years in the Bible too seriously. I guess it is possible that people used to live for 400 or 600 years, or that the Israelites wandered exactly 40 years between the Exodus and the Promised Land, but I don’t think so. If I take those numbers as completely accurate then I have to take every representation in Scripture as literally true, and I have resisted such an abandonment of logic and intellect for too long to turn back now. After all, here, I am just about seventy years old.
Besides, if the Bible is literally and completely true and accurate, there is nothing to learn from it. Maybe that sounds ridiculous when I express it so explicitly, but it is the conclusion that the architects of my own Jewish tradition reached an exceedingly long time ago. We posit two corpuses of Torah, one which is written (maybe the Five Books of Moses, but perhaps the entirety of the Bible – even though some of the Bible, like the Book of Psalms, is attributed to human authors) and the other of which is oral (at least the Talmud and interpretive literature called midrash, and some say every commentary and conversation about Torah from the closure of the canon until your eyes scanning this column).
Sitting in this 58th century since the creation of the world (according to the Bible – again, I caution taking it too literally), I look back across the millennia and recognize that there have always been people who yearn for the authority of literalness. The plain contrast between true and false, authentic and manufactured, godly and sinful is very appealing, but it is simply unknowable. The believers in absolute certitude of meaning and intent in every era have either disappeared or evolved, thus destroying their claim to certitude. It is always the interpreters who survive, though not always their particular interpretations.
What is true about the holy and venerated Torah which has a source in the divine fabric of existence is at least equally true about documents that were inarguably produced by human beings. For the sake of illustration, I will choose one: the Constitution of the United States. The oldest person to sign its ratification was Benjamin Franklin at 81. The youngest was Jonathan Dayton at 26. The primary author was James Madison. When he completed the task, he was 36. Of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, all but one – Franklin – were under 70, and all but a handful were a long way from it. They could not have been smart enough or old enough to have intended their words to cover every future circumstance.
The immutability of text is alluring in every belief system. It removes the responsibility of the reader to do anything other than cite sacred words as a justification for belief and behavior. But it is never true, not immediately after the text is written and increasingly with every day that passes. Things change, words acquire new meanings and lose old ones, and the reader/listener/student who was once 26 eventually becomes 81. It is never too late to learn something new.
The rabbi who first proclaimed, “here, I am just about seventy years old” was acknowledging that the story of the Exodus should be told at night, not only during the day. Pulling an all-nighter on Passover seems a pretty small lesson for someone who is almost seventy. (Honestly, I have trouble making it much past ten o’clock these days.) It seems almost incidental. But if the small lessons can still be learned that late in life, then I think there are larger lessons an old dude like me can yet learn from the presumed “original meaning” of the Torah. And the Constitution.
Friendly readers, after almost fifty installments of this project, I am interrupting weekly musings on “Wisdom Wherever You Find It.” Here is why.
Though I cannot be exact, I know that the “open rate” on these columns has decreased significantly. If you are one of those people who reads my writing religiously (thank you both), you may disagree, but trust me – I am not wrong.
I am also contending with major transitions in my life, professionally and personally, and my ability to focus on innovative messages has dwindled. These changes are all for the good, thanks for your concern, but as you likely know, all change is difficult.
I began this blog in 2015 determined to spend some time reflecting on the weekly Torah portion presented in synagogues around the world. I no longer had the opportunity to learn with others in a satisfying way, so I spent some time each week thinking about what I would like to hear. Within a year, I started my project of chapter-by-chapter commentary on a single verse, and when I reached the end after more than five years, I turned to wisdom that was not from the Torah. If you want to review, you will find more than 325 entries archived on www.jackmoline.com under “Weekly Column,” or let me know to subscribe you to my Google group, “Aliba D’Rav” (a slight Talmudic pun meaning “according to a rabbi.”)
Maybe I will be back at this in a few weeks, maybe during the summer or maybe when autumn leaves start to fall. By then, an email from me will have become unexpected again, and you will wonder if maybe you should give it three minutes.
PLEASE do not write to tell me I am making a mistake. I am not fishing for affirmation or taking my ball and stomping off. Likewise, I am not looking for compliments; I have received many of those, and I thank you. If you want to tell me I am making the right decision…well, why were you reading these in the first place?
Some of these columns will continue to appear in other places, including www.goodfaithmedia.org, which I will note on my Facebook page. Occasionally, you will hear something from me when I am inspired or peeved.
Meanwhile, thank you for your attention for almost six years. See you soon!
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
You have a choice whenever you encounter something from another tradition. You can look for the differences, or you can find the resonances. I advise you to find the resonances. Sadruddin Patel
Here is a piece of advice that a young Eboo Patel received from his father. It is among the things that propelled him down an extraordinary journey among people of many faiths and none at all. Sadruddin was a Shia Muslim, a Gujarati from the Indian subcontinent. (Gandhi, a Hindu, was likewise Gujarati.) Eboo was raised in a multicultural community outside of Chicago, and not always happily.
I think about this piece of advice a lot. It strikes me as one of the more effective antidotes to the poison we have ingested as a society in which every difference is weaponized for local gain. There is simply a stunning amount of umbrage that is provoked by the plain notion that someone may have a distinct point of view from your own. And while I might find some level of understanding if the subject were the now-infamous “deeply held personal convictions,” the fact is friendships and families have been torn apart over the gentlest exercises of constitutional rights.
The senior Patel’s instruction was about religious diversity, and I will stick with it for a moment before I come back to its larger implications. I have written before about my own reluctance in my younger days to consider favorably the beliefs and practices of others. I looked for the differences. I will go so far to admit I took offense at the affirmations of others that differed from my own. I think I was probably pleasant enough about it outwardly, but I know my inner commentator was insisting that these poor self-delusional religious folks (including some who were Jews) were somehow missing out. I have spoken with enough people about faith and tradition in the intervening years to know that many of them felt the same about me.
What changed? Honestly, it began with a conversation I had with a Presbyterian. I won’t do well explaining how a Presbyterian church works (or, at least, is supposed to work), but the premise is that everyone is taken care of. Like any congregation, the lay leaders deal with budget and bylaws, but there is an entire structure that makes leaders responsible to keep in touch with and address the concerns of every member. There are formal names and guidelines (which I never committed to memory), and the traditional iteration was pretty much White and male, but the notion struck a chord within me as a rabbi. Somewhat accidentally, I found a resonance. And once I was able to adapt that resonance to my own Jewish congregation, I found others from many other traditions.
(Let me commend the Sikh practice of hospitality, for example.)
The junior Patel used this and other bits of wisdom to become a remarkable leader in interfaith relations. As his father inspired him, he has inspired others to find resonances in other traditions.
But it seems to me this is good advice not only for engaging with practitioners of other faith traditions. My aforementioned larger implications are about society in general, especially but not just politically. There are, to be sure, people who are immovable in their convictions. In other contexts, I have wondered whether they are motivated by conviction or fear, but it does not matter. Mr. Patel’s model was not addressed to the “other,” but to you. Independent of campaigns and elections, nominations and appointments, legislation and policy declarations, there is always – always – a resonance for you, however deeply muted. In any situation, the matter at hand can be most effectively dealt with when both parties’ concerns are addressed. Will someone be unhappy when they don’t get their way? Yes. But they will be less unhappy if the resolution resonates than if they are defeated by mere power.
This is not the place for an extended example, but I will mention one: marriage equality. In less than a generation, the vast majority of the American community turned 180 degrees on the question because advocates presented the matter not as a matter of law but as a matter of love. Civil rights implications still present challenges to those whose “deeply held personal convictions” define their concerns, but overwhelmingly Americans resonated with the similarly deeply held personal conviction that you love whom you love, not the person you are told to love.
For those who, like me, lean hard to the left on social issues, finding the resonances is no less important. There is always a choice when you encounter some from a different perspective. Like the senior Mr. Patel, I advise you to find the resonances.
By the way, the picture above is not of Sadruddin Patel, but of his son, Eboo. More resonance.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s one thing for the minority to speak up. It’s up to the majority to say they are right. Bob Roberts, Jr.
I think that if I am going to quote a Baptist preacher, I myself ought to begin with the Bible. In recounting the oppression of the Israelite slaves, the Book of Exodus (2:23-24) notes that when Pharaoh died, the Israelites groaned, which God took note of. The ancient rabbis looked at that text and wondered what took God so long to notice their groaning. After all, they had been enslaved to that Pharaoh for many years!
The answer they formulated was this: the oppression was so severe, they were not allowed even to groan under their burden. Only when the king died could they cry out under the guise of mourning Pharaoh.
I think it is pretty easy for people who are comfortable to imagine that everyone is comfortable. Intellectually, the person with a roof and a refrigerator and reliable transportation knows that some folks have less, but it is hard to feel another’s pain when you have none of your own. And when something happens to challenge the good life a person is living, all too often the focus is on the return to comfort rather than considering that others might be suffering as well.
Mostly, we live at a time and in a place rife with blessing. We enjoy opportunities and freedoms never imagined even by the elite of generations past. But it is undeniable that some of us are much more richly blessed than others.
The thing is true not only in a material sense. I am trying hard to avoid introducing the word “privilege” into this column, but I won’t succeed. Many, many, many people in the United States enjoy the automatic advantages that come with being White, or financially secure, or well-educated, or all of the above and more. They are well-documented and indisputable. Intellectually, people with those advantages (like me, just so you shouldn’t think I am merely pointing fingers) know that life is tougher for lots of others, but it is hard to feel another’s pain when you have none of your own.
And here’s where it gets more than a little dicey. When those seeking a more equitable society speak up, those who are living on the plus-side of equity begin to worry that the (ouch, here it is) privilege they have enjoyed is going to be diminished. They hear the criticism of their advantages to be a judgment against what they have earned, if not by their own specific efforts, then by the community to which they belong.
It is not worth denying it. When the minority wants what the majority has – material wealth, influence, earning power, representation, security, respect – those who believe any or all of those benefits exist in limited supply can hear only, “they want what I have.” And deep inside a voice responds, “but it’s mine.”
Bob Roberts is a conservative Evangelical pastor who lives outside of Dallas. And he came to understand that there were a whole lot of people who practiced Islam who were considered less-than by the members of his community even thought they likely never met a Muslim. You can look up what his personal revelation led to by visiting his website, www.glocal.net. Bob knows that all the advocacy in the world will not result in justice and equity if those with power – the majority – will not acknowledge legitimate grievance. As a White man, a Christian, a person who lives a comfortable life, he knows there is enough respect and opportunity to go around.
If those of us with privilege are only just hearing the groans of the oppressed, it is worth wondering not what took them so long to speak, rather what took us so long to hear. And if what they are saying is anywhere near the cries of the ancient Israelites, then it is up to us to say they are right.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
The best revenge is not to be like that. Marcus Aurelius
It was Henny Youngman who said, “A patient says to a doctor, ‘Doc, it hurts when I go like this.’ And the doctor says, ‘Then don’t go like that.’” I know better than to try to take apart a joke to see why it is funny. Fortunately, I have Marcus Aurelius to analyze instead.
The quotation is actually in Greek, which means that I am working in translation. In my attempt to be certain was at least close to the original, I looked at a number of sources, each of which put the translator’s own little spin on the original. Most of them wanted the observation to sound more like Marcus Aurelius and less like Henny Youngman. But the one that splits the difference (by using archaic English) is this: “The best way of avenging thyself is not to do likewise.” In other words, if it hurt when someone did that, don’t do that.
It may be a little heretical to say I like this version better than the aphorism that emerged from Jewish and Christian sources roughly at the same time in history. Jesus phrased it positively: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Hillel phrased it preventatively: That which is distasteful to you, do not unto others. (Disclaimer: those are also translations.) But Marcus Aurelius acknowledges what is really part of the human condition. People who have been wronged want revenge.
Revenge is a peculiar emotion that has motivated bad history and great literature, but in the end it is imitative. The person who seeks revenge wants to preserve, even intensify, something hurtful and outrageous. In dispassionate moments, most people would likely come around to the notion that nothing but private satisfaction is gained by returning wound for wound, and even that satisfaction is short-lived. But in the throes of injury, especially when it is intentionally inflicted, the victim thinks from the place of pain rather than wisdom.
In fact, the more popular translation of this Greek phrase is “The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” By substituting the offender – presumed to be an enemy – for the offending behavior, the sufferer animates the pain by giving it a body and life force, which can then be eliminated or, for the principled Stoic, spared. It’s almost as if Henny Youngman’s patient replies, “You’re a quack, and I am going to give you a bad Yelp review.” Ruins the joke.
The notion that the best revenge is to delegitimate the bad behavior is, to my mind, a huge step forward. I could say that unlike tit-for-tat, taking the high road gives me the sense that I am improving the world around me by modeling a kinder, gentler way to comport myself. I am not that noble. Rather, it allows me to feel smug, which is not a particularly admirable character trait, but it keeps me out of jail. Also, it actually does improve the world. Revenge may be organic, but it pollutes the human family the way carbon emissions make life more difficult for everyone.
Whether you take your cues from Marcus, Jesus, or Hillel (or even Henny), the formula for living a good life is to reduce the suffering in this world, not only for yourself and those you love, and not only for people you never knew, but for the people who did you dirt. Might that latter group feel they got away with something and try it again? It’s a possibility, and maybe even a likelihood (if I am feeling a little cynical). The resolution to a grievance is the pursuit of justice, not revenge.
I have plotted revenge many times in my life. If you don’t hold me to it, I may admit I attempted it once or twice. But honestly, all it does is renew the original pain, and what I always really wanted was for the pain to go away. That’s why the best revenge is not to be like that.
Take my advice. Please.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. It is a weakening and discoloring idea that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time – or even knew selflessness or courage or literature – but that it is too late for us…In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger…In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies, to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss, or to endure torture. Annie Dillard
Nelson Mandela, Natan Sharansky, Wang Weilin, Ieshia Evans, Annette Goodyear. The names may or may not be familiar at first glance, but the reasons you should know them most certainly resonate. Within your lifetime, these individuals made the times we live in heroic by their actions. They are, in retrospect, remarkable, even exceptional individuals. In other times and other circumstances, they may have been ordinary and unnoticed. But, as Annie Dillard says, they were wiped by the finger of the sacred.
They are products of our generation – not a pure cohort, certainly not rustic, and positively not an iteration of the human family that can claim to know God personally. At a moment in the natural course of their lives, each one responded to an opportunity that presented itself and refused to be overwhelmed by it. It was a choice, not an inevitability. Some went on to build on that moment and others disappeared into ordinariness.
I admit to enjoying the achievements of other people. I find them inspiring. It prompted me to create The Sixty Fund, which irregularly awards a nice letter, a home-printed certificate and a small check (really small) to people I notice who display courage, compassion, wisdom, or generosity that might otherwise go unnoticed. Actually, to say I created it is not 100% accurate; my family gave The Sixty Fund to me as a 60th birthday gift, and it has turned into one of the best things I do. I have the chance to acknowledge people who were wiped by the finger of the sacred.
Some of their stories will be told for generations while others will be discarded with the newspapers and expired online links that brought them to attention. But what is correct is that not a one of them – just like you and me – was born to be a hero. They were presented with an opportunity and found themselves without a real choice of how to act if they wanted to do the right thing. Countless others have faced similar chances. Some rose to the occasion and others responded to different impulses.
A debate among rabbis took place many hundred years ago about Noah the ark-builder. The Bible calls him a righteous man “in his generation.” Was he righteous only in comparison to the general wickedness of his society, or would he have been considered righteous even among a community of admirable people? That is, in “his” generation or in “any” generation?
The debate is unresolved, but the question is more important than the answer. In righteous times, Noah’s heroics would have been unnecessary. He would have been an ordinary man, even if he were among the righteous. Circumstances even in those allegedly pure and rustic times were what produced heroes who expressed selflessness or courage or literature. Writ large or small, you yourself have been that person when you otherwise had no choice – the comforting arms for a bereaved companion, the rebuke to a bully, the acceptance of responsibility for a hurtful mistake, the profession of love to a lonely friend, the endurance to power through pain – if you wanted to do the right thing. Your action was biblical, epic, legendary, emulable. It was not dependent on reportage.
So many stories and teachings we call holy attain that status because they are distant and old. Did the people who lived them recognize their significance as they occurred? Maybe. More likely, no matter how close they felt to revelation or inspiration or holiness or achievement, they still fell short of their ancestors who lived in a formerly pure generation and more rustic times. They believed that the noise of contemporary society drowned out the primal connections to nature and creation that the Elders knew in their bones. They were as wrong then as we are now.
Our lives attest to the potential for greatness. Especially in complicated times, simple survival is heroic. If our forebearers beat a path for freedom across the wilderness on any continent, then we and our descendants are no less the successful pioneers for navigating asphalt and technology. And if, when presented with a chance to rise even above the extraordinary fact of living every day, we do so by reflex or intent, then we owe it to ourselves and those insecure ancestors to acknowledge and give thanks for having been, in that instant, wiped with the finger of the sacred.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
To the Prophets, a moral infraction was a cosmic outrage. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
If you made a short list of modern thinkers who have inspired humanity, it would necessarily include Abraham Joshua Heschel. He lived his life at the intersections of existence – spiritual and practical, heaven and earth, human and divine, particular and universal, momentary and eternal. He was exquisitely exacting in expressing himself. His daughter Susanna remembers that he considered a successful day to be one on which he wrote a good sentence.
This quotation must have made for a very good day.
As with most of what he wrote, reading Heschel too quickly puts you in danger of missing the point. There is no incidental language in this sentence. An infraction is often a very minor transgression – in contemporary language it is used to describe illegal parking. A moral infraction sounds like a mere lapse in judgment, like not returning excess change from a small purchase or perhaps embarrassing someone with a casual remark. In fact, the person who commits an “infraction” may very well object to the notion that such a powerful word as “moral” is attached to it. But that is, I believe, Heschel’s point.
The phrase “cosmic outrage” is loaded with power. If an infraction, moral or otherwise, is something one might excuse or overlook, there is no ignoring the explosive description of indignation writ large. Here is the intersection of the inconsequential and ultimate. And Heschel, who sought out those places of connection, invites you into the place where those concerns connect.
Please don’t stop there because I do not want to overstate my case. This formidable assertion has a modifier. It appears in the introduction to the book that established Heschel as a voice of his generation, The Prophets. His examination of the Biblical prophets, individually and collectively, opened a window to the unique messages of each one and the ethos of prophecy. The prophets were not self-anointed orators. They were messengers, often reluctant, whose sensitivity to the divine presence provoked listeners then and down through the centuries to consider the way every person and every group of people (and especially the Jewish people) might live up to the sacred nature of being created in God’s image. That’s pretty old-fashioned language, but please remember that the Bible is an ancient collection.
It is “to the Prophets” that the moral shortcoming was the source of divine anger. The prophets were our instructors, not necessarily our role models. To live at the intersection of human fallacy and divine rectitude, a person needs to know both. The first qualification is widely accessible. The latter is in scarce supply, and not something that any person can merely claim. Heschel and other believers in the Bible attribute the knowledge of God’s will to God’s will, not to human deduction. Prophetic teaching, which is not predictive (the modern sense of the word) rather instructive, is meant to make us sensitive to what Heschel called the “divine pathos.”
The general lesson that Heschel describes is that our misconduct breaks God’s heart. Reading the Prophets with that notion in mind (in fact, reading all of the Bible with that in mind) casts the God of the Hebrew Bible in a much more sympathetic light than ancient and modern skeptics accusingly shine on the “Old Testament.” (An aside: “old” sounds much less pejorative to me now that I am old.)
But here is the other lesson of Heschel’s teaching. Modern activists who lay claim to the insight of the Prophets almost always overstep their bounds. Those who confuse personal outrage with cosmic outrage commit their own moral infraction. Actions that purposely cause suffering to others, justified by the would-be prophets, cause divine heartbreak, not approbation.
If Heschel could take great satisfaction in one carefully crafted sentence, we, his students, should be at least that deliberate in applying his lessons.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
May your homes not become your graves. High Holy Day prayerbook
In the liturgy for the afternoon of Yom Kippur is a recollection of the long-ago service of atonement in the Holy Temple. At the end of the description of the sacrificial rituals is a tiny addition. The High Priest says to the pilgrims who have gathered from the Sharon Valley on the coastal plain, “May your homes not become your graves.”
That section of the Holy Land is subject to earthquakes, and when they occurred the stone structures in which people lived could collapse without notice. In the liturgy, the prayer is just that brief, but even thousands of years later, thousands of miles away, hundreds of thousands of days since the last catastrophic earthquake, I am always captured by the poignancy of what feels like a spiritual afterthought.
Of late, the prayer feels more immediate. The rash of violent natural occurrences that have produced unusual and ferocious tornados, volcanos and tsunamis, deluges, fires, and earthquakes each produces photos of the aftermath in which our homes have become our graves. There is barely a week that goes by in which multiple people do not lose their lives in collapse, explosion, fire, or asphyxiation in private or public housing, making our homes become our graves. The global reach of daily news brings constant shock over the homicides and suicides – most often by gunshot – of entire families, turning our homes into our graves. There is always an element of complicity in these tragedies by human hands – the ones that hold the firearms, the ones that do not maintain the housing, the ones have contributed to climate change.
The prayer has a much larger metaphoric resonance as well. Eastern Europe was home to millions and millions of Jews (and other minorities) in the early 20th Century. Our homes became our graves.
My goal is not to depress you, though I have probably succeeded, nonetheless. My goal is to illustrate how easily the specter of death can overwhelm the heart that needs to grieve and remember other hearts.
Late last year, I lost a dear, dear lifetime friend who succumbed to a phalanx of health challenges that finally dominated a heretofore indominable spirit. As her family grieved, death paid another visit to her mother who was, no doubt, made more fragile by the death of her beloved child. Unbelievably, during the funeral for the mother, her mother-in-law died. The husband, my soul-friend, was bereaved three times in two months. No place he could lay his head was untouched by death.
I am no longer the rabbi of a congregation. I like to say I am out of the retail end of the business, but old reflexes can come back pretty quickly. I was distressed for the family and for myself (almost a part of the family) that the circumstances had conspired to replace grief for each loved one with a sort of death-fatigue. Compassion for the survivors is important after any loss, but it is no less important than the respect that the distinct memories of the deceased demand. Three genuinely remarkable women had died so close to each other, and our natural inclination was to push against death, not to grieve the uniqueness of each.
That’s the danger of that painful prayer: may your homes not become your graves. Of course we pray for that. Of course it is appropriate. Of course we do not want to conflate the place we live with the place we die.
But the death of another is not our own death. It does not matter the cause – the Holocaust, the covid virus, the hurricane, the assault weapons. The life that death has claimed deserves our grief in a way that does not allow our fear of death itself to claim that life a second time. Death will successfully stalk each one of us, God willing for 120 years. And when we die, as we must, we deserved to be mourned uniquely, whatever form that takes.
May our homes not become our graves. May death claim those we love only once.