Talmud this Shabbat: Two Poems Written in the Ambiguous Space Between Terror and Hope


One poem was written after the insurrection and before the inauguration. That was Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.” She had to confront terrifying events in a realistic way without succumbing to despair; indeed, to confront an assault on our democracy that happened two weeks and one day ago and, standing in the same place where the assault had happened, somehow remain hopeful. There is not a market for pessimistic poets. But how to forge legitimate optimism in the face of the deep problems our nation now confronts?

What was it about her words, her presence, and her presentation that answered that question in ways that drew universal rave reviews?

The other poem was written after the Israelites were very nearly wiped out by the Egyptians. They offered their poem just after their salvation, but still very much feeling their vulnerability. The Shira is a mixture of gratitude, relief, and terror at what might have been.

What is so powerful about this poem that we recite it not once a year in next week’s portion, but literally every single day, 365 days a year, times forever, in our morning prayers?

Tomorrow in Talmud we will look at Amanda Gorman’s words after the insurrection and before the inauguration, and the poetry of Exodus 15 after our ancestors’ salvation from the ferocity of the Egyptian army in hot pursuit—beleaguered, weary ex slaves with a long, long way to go.

What do these two poems teach us about how to wrest salvation from our own vulnerability?

Talmud this Shabbat: What Does Klete Keller Teach Us About Human Nature, Our Beloved Country, and What We Can Do Now?


If you were going to write a story about somebody who could expect a fabulous life of untold blessing, it would be hard to think of a more promising candidate than Klete Keller. He is 6 foot 6, a star athlete, a world-class swimmer. He won 5 medals in two Olympics, including 2 gold. His greatest moment came in the Athens 2004 Olympics. He was the anchor on the USA relay team featuring Michael Phelps. He was going up against the unquestioned best swimmer in the world at the time, Ian Thorpe of Australia. In a shocking upset, he beat Ian Thorpe, and USA won gold. Pictures of him surrounded by his teammates show pure jubilation.

If we were writing his life story, he would come home, get married, raise a happy family, use his Olympic fame and fortune to live a comfortable life. He would live happily ever after.

But that is not what happened. The pedestrian nature of work paled in comparison to the thrill of Olympic competition. He was constantly disgruntled at work, and this bitterness infected his marriage. One day, on the same day, he loses both his marriage and his job. He lives in his car for ten months. In his distress, he reaches out to an estranged sister and says I need help. She warmly takes him in and restores his faith in himself and in life. He changes his attitude. He leaves her home and moves to Colorado to work at a real estate firm. He is bound and determined to live a stable and successful life.

But that did not happen either. This week he was charged by the federal authorities with several federal crimes arising from his presence at the insurrection in the Capitol last Wednesday. Since he stands 6 foot 6, and since he was wearing his USA team jacket, he was easy to identify. Attached are three links that tell his story: a New York Times article, his Wikipedia page, and a podcast in which he narrates his story from winning the gold medal to homelessness.

What do we learn from his life story about the human condition? What does his story teach us about what happened on January 6 at the Capitol? The poet William Blake taught us that you can see the whole world in a grain of sand. What does his grain of sand teach us about the insurrection?

I am also attaching an article I first read 40 years ago, when I was a college student, written by the great historian Richard Hofstadter entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Since he wrote it in the 1960s, inspired by the McCarthy era, and the campaign of Barry Goldwater, it is not about our time, our politics, our personalities. This piece of history is about a theme that always pervades American politics, what he calls the paranoid style. What light does this essay shed on Klete Keller and more generally on January 6?

Finally, at 3:48 or so in the morning of January 7, after Congress certified the election results, a religious leader named Barry Black offered a prayer. It was a stunning moment at the end of a traumatic day. Every Senator and Representative stood in their place, bowed their head, and heard his prayer, which is attached. Does his prayer help? What does his prayer call upon us to do now?

See you at 8:30.

Gann Chapel Livestream

Talmud this Shabbat: Is it Possible for a Leader to Be Effective–and Loved by All?


Consider three prime cases in the Torah.

Joseph is effective in challenging times. There is a severe famine in the world. Only Egypt has food because of his wise policies of conserving grain during the seven abundant years. The good news is that Egyptians do not starve to death. The bad news is that they give all their money, their livestock, and their land to Pharaoh, ultimately becoming slaves to Pharaoh. Because of Joseph’s agrarian policies, the first slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt are Egyptians. Joseph is effective, not loved—and the Torah hints that the Egyptians serve up sweet revenge by enslaving Joseph’s descendants.

Moses is likewise effective—and not loved. When he dies, not all of Israel laments his passing. By contrast, when Aaron dies, the Torah is explicit that all of Israel does lament his passing. When we examine the sin of the golden calf, Aaron is ineffective. He does not resist the people’s idolatry. The Torah explicitly blames him for letting the people get out of control. Yet, when he dies, he is mourned by all.

There seems to be a biblical algorithm. An effective leader, who invites people to face hard choices, to make hard decisions, and to live with the consequences, is not beloved by all. The work of real leadership burns tread.

One of our members, who runs a university, tells new university presidents: If you want to be loved, get a dog.

Is it possible to be effective and loved by all? If not, what does that say about us?

Attached are the texts.

See you on Shabbat at 8:30.

Talmud this Shabbat: What Do We Learn From Nehemiah Chapter 13 About How to See Our Own Failures?


I attach a priceless Hanukkah present, a link to Micah Goodman’s lecture from this past Sunday about the Book of Nehemiah.

Micah’s lecture is gold. In one hour, he makes this obscure, unread book come alive. The setting is shivat tzion, the return to Israel after the destruction of the First Temple. Two prior waves of Jews had tried and failed to rebuild Jerusalem after the destruction. Nehemiah is the third wave. When we first meet him, he is a powerful and trusted advisor to the King of Persia. When Nehemiah hears how demoralized and defeated the Jews of Jerusalem are, he gets permission from the King of Persia to go to Jerusalem and rebuild.

He spends years of his life successfully rebuilding Jerusalem. He rebuilds the walls. He rebuilds the army. He rebuilds the sense of communal cohesion. He accomplishes economic reform. He accomplishes religious reform. (For example, Jews had not observed Sukkot since the time of Joshua, and he inspires a renewed commitment to Sukkot.) He accomplishes social reform. This is a part of Nehemiah that will be troubling to many modern Jews, but he is very anti inter-marriage, and wants non-Jewish spouses expelled from Jerusalem. All in all, complicated. Modern readers might not like the whole package. But while he is in Jerusalem he is effective.

He goes back to Persia to serve the King. After a period, he revisits Jerusalem and, in chapter 13, learns that all of his reforms had failed. Nothing took. The book ends on a note of abject failure. Chapter 13 is attached here.

In Talmud this Shabbat, we will double click on chapter 13. What does Nehemiah’s failure teach us about our own?

Talmud this Shabbat: Why Do We Never See Bilhah and Zilpah?


The Jewish people are missing two of our mothers. We don’t see them. We don’t talk about them. We act as if they don’t exist. We don’t say their names. Tomorrow morning, we will.

Bilhah and Zilpah.

Here are the incontrovertible facts. They are the mothers of one third of our people. Bilhah is the mother of Dan and Naphtali. Zilpah is the mother of Gad and Asher. Each had as many children as Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin). They are both the wives of Jacob. The Torah says so explicitly.

Yet.

Hardly any midrash mentions them.

When we bless our daughters, we say: “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” We do not say their names.

In 1998, when Siddur Sim Shalom added the matriarchs in the Amidah, it added: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We do not say their names.

In 2016, when Siddur Lev Shalem came out, that is only four years ago, again: we do not say their names. Only Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

Why do we still not see the mothers of one third of our people? Maybe in biblical times, or ancient rabbinic times, it was a patriarchy. But today?

Find the texts for tomorrow here.

Talmud this Shabbat: Is There a Legitimately Hopeful, Positive, Upbeat Way to View This Thanksgiving?


We all know that this Thanksgiving is unlike any other Thanksgiving. The default energy for a small, isolated, socially distanced Thanksgiving
where we don’t see the people we usually see, where we don’t do what we usually do, might be negative, sad, off.

Is there some other way to see this Thanksgiving that is legitimately hopeful, positive, upbeat?

Yes.

The texts are attached here.

See you on Shabbat at 8:30.

Talmud this Shabbat: Not About the Steak


One of the rarest gifts in the world of Torah is a true chidush—a new thought, an utterly original insight, that no commentator, in thousands of years, has ever offered before.

Even more rare is a chidush that is true not only of the biblical character, but for all of us—when this insight is universally true.

This Shabbat we are going to encounter just such a chidush.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, may he rest in peace, asks a question about this verse: “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game.” Genesis 25:28. Can it really be that our forefather Isaac, one of the founders of the Jewish people, preferred Esau over Jacob because Isaac loved steak? The Hebrew expression, tzayid b’fiv, literally means that the trappings of the hunt were in Isaac’s mouth. Surely it has to be about more than a taste for steak.

Rabbi Sacks offers a sensitive psychological profile of Isaac. But not only Isaac. All of us.

If we can deeply get and internalize the humanity and wisdom of Rabbi Sacks’ Torah, we will become better at loving the people in our life. That is the best chidush of all.

Rabbi Sacks’ commentary, and the biblical texts that support it, are attached here.

See you on Shabbat at 8:30.

Gann Chapel Livestream 

Talmud this Shabbat: The Late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Soft Tone and Harsh Tone of Leadership


On this first Shabbat after his passing, we are going to dedicate our Talmud class to the incredible Torah of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. We have a unique angle.

One of our members, Paul Greenberg, was blessed to have had a series of email exchanges with Rabbi Sacks based on his various teachings. One particularly evocative exchange had to do with the tone of leadership. What is the optimal tone? After watching Rabbi Sacks’ TED talk, Paul observes: “I especially noted that the tone seemed hopeful, gentlemanly, moderate.” Then Paul asked the Rabbi his question:

I have always thought that the tone of protest ought to be loud, forceful, and jarring. So my question is how to reconcile the soft tone of your TED talk with the harsh tone of protest.

Rabbi Sacks’ answer was as wise as it is beautiful and inspiring. His answer is what our world needs now. His answer, and the biblical story on which he bases it, will be the subject of our study on Shabbat morning. The texts are attached here.

May Rabbi Sacks rest in peace. May his Torah improve our tone. May our better tone improve our world.

Talmud this Shabbat: Texts That Help With Our Trauma


A house divided.

In Sutton, MA, the Times reported the tally as 3,042 to 3,041. In Webster, MA,
4,003 to 4,002.

That is not heartland red vs. coastal blue. Those are towns within Massachusetts.

A house divided is traumatic. Everybody I talk to is eating too much, drinking too much, worrying too much, and sleeping too little.

On Shabbat morning, Michelle, Elias, Dan and I will each teach a text that can help us through this trauma. The texts are attached here.

When all else fails, learn Torah.

Talmud this Shabbat: Singing While the World Burns-the Disturbing Message of the Singing Serafs


What do we make of that moment in the prayers when the angels, safe in
heaven, are singing sweet and happy praises to God? We encounter this motif both in the prayers before the morning shema, and in the kedusha in the Amidah.

We revere and hallow You on earth as Your name is hallowed in heaven,
where it is sung by celestial choirs, as in Your prophet’s vision.
The angels called one to another:

Holy, holy, holy Adonai Tz’vaot;
the grandeur of the world is God’s glory.
(The Kedushah for Musaf on Shabbat)

There are a couple of challenges with this prayerful moment. First, it’s not us. The angels are in heaven, singing sweetly together. They make music. We are on earth, divided, arguing, talking past one another. We make cacophony.

But there is a deeper problem. If you read the sources from which this moment comes, as we will on Shabbat, the world is in the middle of a meltdown. There is a political crisis. A health crisis. A natural disaster (earthquake) crisis. Confidence in leadership is gone. The dead are piling up. The destruction is massive. I am not making this stuff up. It is explicitly in the sources we will encounter.

It is in this context of death, destruction and dislocation (Get used to it, God tells Isaiah. 90% of you will die. Only 10% will remain. The tree dies. Only the stump remains.), that the angels sing their sweet, untroubled song.

If the world is burning, why are they singing?

If the world is burning, why is God listening to it?

If the world was burning, why do we make this troubling motif—clueless angels singing to a distant God while people suffer and die—why do we pray this today, every day?

Fondly,
Wes