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Holding Opposites Together
Mon, 02/11/2013 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
David Wolpe
David Wolpe

Deep questions deserve more than one answer. Should we rely on God or on ourselves? In Exodus (14:15), as the Israelites approach the sea, Moses cries out to God. God answers, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to move forward.” So it seems a moment for self-reliance. But Rashi rereads the Hebrew to mean, “Why do you cry out? It’s on Me.”

In other words, God is saying — no need to cry out, I will save you.

Here is the same verse and two opposite answers. The contradiction threads throughout Judaism. The Psalmist writes that “all people are deceivers” (Psalm 116) suggesting reliance on God. Yet we are also told, “don’t rely on miracles” (Shabbat 32a), which implies the imperative of human initiative. What is a muddled believer to do?

Well, as we know from Talmudic study, when there are two verses that contradict one another, a third is found to reconcile them. So let us reconcile ourselves with Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: “There is a time for everything.” No single principle can stand in all moods, for all moments. There are times that demand human efforts and times where it is more appropriate to turn to God. Now, if we could only figure out which is which...

Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at

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I get lost in trying to see the contradiction in Psalm 116 and Shabbat 32A: not all deceiving seems consciously done, in my own life, some of the worst messes I have created, have been when I could not have known what oaks would fall in the forest behind me. "Don't rely on miracles," to me is the sage advice that to sensibly tread through life, is the best course, to maintain the idea that small steps will achieve a summit. There are times, too, the miracle is, they do. However, in considering that first statement, I cannot help but think of the tragedy of the great Rabbi, (I think) Reb Nachman of Breslav who once alighted from his carriage to chastise a drunken beggar on the street. Later, upon reflection, he wept that he had so intended to correct rude and challenging behavior and now he saw it only in the mirror. We realize then, the man imbibing in the gravel must have been a Jew, for the ones who took Bubbe in the pogrom last week--well, such corrective action is best left for G!d, lest one error in anger not in charity. Thus, when the Rabbi swooped out to tell his own to look to his life, in doing so unmindful, he judged a man who sat and waited, and sought to shame him, he who sat so miserable and drunken on the street that great Rabbis in carriages were known to frequent. Whatever,then, the man had to live with, the Rabbi now had a severe self-judgment on his own state. The fact he dared to ask forgiveness, reveals that such was so. And though to have the great seek forgiveness of the humble, seems a beauty, sometimes it is too cruel to one who tries so hard and knows more when he fails, and tries so many more times than we do. If all people are deceivers, we do trick ourselves the worst I find, when we are unaware, for I have learned my righteous anger is always followed by a certain deep necessity of apology. Yet too, no matter what ideals and firm resolve I have, my life is lived most often, as a child playing catch-up with shoelaces undone. I cannot know enough. Soon enough. As for " Don't rely on miracles," to me, that is a message to do the work on myself, by myself, that later, perhaps in looking back that mysterious and lovely silver thread will be extant, the one that guided me to the wealth of greater kindness. I cannot see the contradiction. I can only at this moment hear that actress we all love, in the film version of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, say gently, "Woman's life is a river..." Perhaps that is it. (I do try to be conventional, but my mind will not sit silent when it does not see what is, for what I once lived. I apologize.)