“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Part 51
Tomorrow morning we consider the problem of our multiple selves. Our point of departure will be two snapshots of David.
The first snapshot: David is being hunted, literally, by King Saul. King Saul is mad with envy and jealousy. He takes a huge fighting force to hunt and kill David. David is on the run, hiding out with his men in a cave in En-gedi. Just then Saul goes into the cave to go to the bathroom. David cannot believe his eyes. There is Saul, the man who is tormenting and chasing him, relieving himself. David is right there and can easily kill him, thereby defending his own life. David’s men urge him to go for it. What are the odds that Saul is vulnerable in this moment? Of all the caves in En-Gedi, Saul chooses this one to use just now. It must be a gift from God. God must want you to do this. Kill Saul. It is legitimate self-defense. You become the King. We can all go home.
But this David exercises restraint. He sneaks up behind King Saul and cuts off a corner of his garment but spares his life. Something in him just knows it would be wrong.
The second snapshot: David is King. He sees and wants Bat Sheba, summons her, has relations with her, gets her pregnant, sends her husband Uriah to the front lines to be killed in battle. When the prophet Nathan tells a parable about a rich man taking a poor man’s sheep, which is obviously about David stealing Bat Sheba from Uriah, David is outraged at this rich man—and cannot even see the parable is about him.
What happened to David’s restraint? To his core?
How do we manage the multitudes that we contain?
See you tomorrow at 8:30.
The thesis of the Book of Kohelet is short and brutal:
Utter futility!—said Kohelet
Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a man
In all the gains he makes under the sun?
Why is Kohelet in the Bible at all? Feels a bit dark for a book that, on balance, posits a loving God in control of our universe.
Why do we read Kohelet on Sukkot? How does its dark message connect with Sukkot as z’man simchateinu, our season of joy?
Where, if at all, is there uplift? What does the book of Kohelet say to you as you lead your life in this new year?
See you tomorrow!
Consider three cases of brokenness. Can Yom Kippur help?
Since the 2016 election, it has just been different between you and somebody who used to be your good friend. You have not had an explicit falling out, just a gradual and deepening chill. There is more and more you cannot talk about. As events transpire, the sense of mutual incomprehension deepens. Can Yom Kippur fix this?
You didn’t make your friend’s wedding. At the time there just seemed to be no way you could get there, you had so much going on, it was far away, you hoped she’d understand. But turns out she was really hurt. She feels a simple equation: if you really cared about me, you would have been there. You cannot go back and make the wedding you missed. Can Yom Kippur fix this?
Much of your life you have struggled with some inner demon. You never solve it. All the previous Yom Kippurs were to no avail. You still struggle. Why should this Yom Kippur be any different?
Tomorrow morning, we will consider a brilliant piece by Rabbi Ethan Tucker on Maimonides’ laws of teshuvah entitled: “When Repentance is (Im)possible.” As Rabbi Tucker shows, Rambam anticipates the range of our insoluble problems and gives us options that help. If you come tomorrow, you will enter Yom Kippur with some new thinking for an old problem.
The Book of Job is an orphan. It has no ritual home. It has no spot on the calendar. It is associated with no holiday. Kohelet has a home—Sukkot. Megilat Ester has a home—Purim. Shir Hashirim has a home—Pesach. Megilat Rut has a home—Shavuot. But the Book of Job is left to graduate students, divinity students, and scholars, an ancient text that is sad and opaque, and for the most part unloved and unread.
Job is not just good, he is perfect. In a recent Hartman on-line lecture, Micah Goodman points out that Job is described in ways that no other person in the Hebrew Bible is described—”blameless and upright, he feared God and shunned evil.” And yet, he loses his family, his friends, his wealth, his health.
Why? Why do bad things happen to good people? The traditional reading of the Book of Job is quite pious. It is what Micah Goodman calls the big, cosmic theory. Namely, God created the world, and we humans didn’t. God is big, and we are small. God is eternal, and we are mortal. Therefore, humble mortal, accept that there are things we cannot understand. But God who created the world has a cosmic rationale which is unknowable to us.
In his lecture, Micah proves conclusively that this pious read is dramatically wrong. The Book of Job does not offer us the cosmic read, but mocks the cosmic read. The message of the Book of Job is that the reward and punishment system of the Bible is broken. It does not work. And there are no explanations or answers for that brokenness. When you examine the sources in the Book of Job itself that Micah cites, which we will do tomorrow, there is no other way to read it. It is not piety. It is a parody of piety.
All of which leads to Micah’s suggestion that perhaps the best home for the Book of Job is the high holiday season. Perhaps the message of the Book of Job is that we are to go to God with our questions that have no answers. We do not need to sacrifice our intellectual integrity to get close to God. We do not need to suppress our doubts and questions to get close to God.
Would reconceiving prayer as a mode of talking to God about our questions, our doubts, our tumult make prayer more honest, more relevant, more alive?
Shabbat shalom and shana tova,
As Yogi Berra put it, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” It is Elul, time to wonder why it seems like we can never change.
Each of us has some version of this conundrum: I no longer want to be X. X can be angry, petty, jealous, critical, negative, hard-hearted, ungenerous, self-indulgent, etc. I am going to work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on overcoming my tendency towards being X. I will pray on it, repent of it, be mindful of changing it. A year comes. A year goes. And again we confront the fact that we still struggle with X. It is as if last year’s High Holidays effected little to no change. Rabbi Milton Steinberg termed this “the problem of our persistent sin.” We cannot seem to change.
Why is that? What do we do about it?
Tomorrow I want to examine two sources. In a lecture at Hadar, Rabbi Shai Held shared sources that speak to why there is such a thing as character, and why our character is so very hard to change. And in The Road to Character (2015), David Brooks offers what feels like a new idea, a new way to understand trying to overcome the parts of ourselves that we like least.
Can you overcome X?
It depends on how you define “overcome.” I believe you can walk away from this class with an idea that will help you feel better about the high holiday project and the endlessly incomplete mission of becoming a better version of yourself.
Let me pose an explosive hypothetical. I do so to try to think slowly and deliberately about an issue that, understandably, triggers a powerful, immediate and intuitive response.
Suppose that in his will, Jeffrey Epstein had left five million dollars for Temple Emanuel. No strings attached. No request to name anything. Just a gift of five million dollars for the shul to use as it sees fit. Let’s also assume that while what he did was unspeakably evil and monstrous, this money did not come from rape or from child abuse. This money came from his work as a financier—a financier who was also a serial rapist and a serial child abuser.
Or, a related hypo: Jeffrey Epstein had left 500 million dollars to CJP. No strings. No naming. Just spend it on some transformational idea as the leadership of CJP sees fit.
Should we take this gift?
Most of us would likely have a feeling of overwhelming nausea and revulsion at the very idea of taking the money. It evokes the observation of Jonathan Haidt that nobody would ever wear Hitler’s sweater.
On the one hand, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the problem with tainted money is that there taint enough of it.
What do our sources tell us about how to think about weighing tainted origins with the good that this money would do? What is off, morally and practically, with the argument that if this monster is dead, and his money could do good, why not take it and do good with it?
While this issue is strictly hypothetical for us, it is of real concern for many universities and other causes near and far to which Epstein contributed. Heads are rolling from how this issue was handled—or mishandled, depending on how you see it.
What does how you see this issue—incapable of nuance, this is Hitler’s sweater, or he is a monster, but I can disconnect his evil from the good his money could do—say about you?
How should we think about messy compromises, the times we have to go along to get along, the times we have to look the other way, the times when we have to suppress our conscience for some greater good, the times when we are not proud of what we are doing, but we do it anyway. And we justify it to ourselves, sort of.
Our point of departure is Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi, about whom two things are true.
One, the Talmud twice points out (Gitten 59A and Sanhedrin 36A) that Yehuda Hanasi was the single greatest Jew since Moses in terms of combining Torah scholarship and political leadership. He knew the sources cold. (He was the editor of the Mishna, the very foundation of rabbinic Judaism.). And he was personally connected to the emperors of Rome. He was undeniably the leader of the Jewish community to the outside world.
Two, his connection to Roman emperors, according to the Talmud’s own testimony, undeniably corrupted him. On Shabbat we will encounter an artful story of the gradual descent of this great Rabbi and leader into more and more compromise, more and more corruption. He gets further and further away from who he wanted to be.
In All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren has his Huey Long protagonist, Willie Stark, a corrupt governor of a southern state, say: “You have to crack some eggs to make an omelet.” Was Yehuda Hanasi’s gradual and serious corruption just the cracking of eggs that allowed the omelet of the Jews to have a rabbi in a position of power?
What eggs do we crack to make what omelets? It’s Elul.
See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. So excited to be back learning together.
As summer blooms, everyone is talking about plans. Plans for summer adventures. Vacations. Goals for self-care. Time for self-reflection.
And yet, as we go off to our vacations, there are so many in our community who are struggling. So many who wonder about where they will find their next meal. So many who worry about how they will pay their bills.
Are we responsible for the vulnerable in our midst? To what degree?
After surviving the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel had every reason to retreat to his own world. After so much suffering, he would have been within his rights to carve out his own pocket of happiness. To focus on self-care for the rest of his life.
But he did not. He spent his life’s energy going around the world to build compassion and uphold justice. Professor Wiesel taught his students to find their voice, to draw on the strength of history, and to use their hands to shape a better world.
How do we balance our need for rest and relaxation with the needs of the world around us?
See you tomorrow at 8:30.
When Rabbi Gardenswartz shared with me the book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger, I was prepared for a book about the Holocaust. What I found is a book filled with deep insights not just about that dark time, but directly relevant to our own.
Elie Wiesel reflects in chapter 4, Madness and Rebellion, “It is illegal to shout ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater. But if there is a fire, it is immoral to remain silent… one must raise an alarm in such a moment, even though it will perceived as the act of a madman, even though it makes people uncomfortable.”
Our world is on fire. How do we walk the narrow bridge from madman to witness to agents of change?
See you tomorrow at 8:30am.
Elie Wiesel has a simple and beautiful d’var about faith. He points out that the Hebrew word for faith is sheilah, composed of four Hebrew letters: shin, alef, lamed, heh. The middle two letters, alef and lamed, are the name of God. His takeaway: “God is in the question.” Witness, p. 100.
In other words, our hardest questions-why did God let X happen-are not impediments to faith. They are how we get to faith.
Tomorrow morning we will see this principle play out not only in Elie Wiesel’s life, but in our own.
See you tomorrow at 8:30.