The ancient historian Tacitus recounts that when Jerusalem was conquered and the Roman general Pompey walked into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, he found it empty. Surely this perplexed the future emperor. Uniquely among ancient civilizations, there was no image or picture of God in the Temple. Pompey probably did not know it, but he was witnessing Judaism’s greatest counterintuitive gift to the world.
"Jerusalem was destroyed," teaches the Talmud, “because judgments were rendered strictly upon the law of the Torah.” In other words, the quality of mercy was missing from the courts of the day. Untempered by humility and humanity, the law is destructive.
Rabbi Tarfon was very rich. One day, Rabbi Akiva met him and said, “My master, shall I purchase for you a town or two?” “Yes,” said Rabbi Tarfon, and immediately gave Rabbi Akiva 4,000 gold dinars. Akiva distributed the money to poor scholars.
Idolatry is alluring. An idol is something one can touch and feel and is made with human hands. Although idols in antiquity traditionally represented forces beyond themselves, they were still the visible, tangible symbols to which people clung and to which they prayed.
When I was 9, my father took me from Harrisburg, Pa., to Baltimore for my first live baseball game. The Orioles won, 6-2. (I remember that Elston Howard hit a home run for the Yankees.) We drove back home and I slept the entire way, shocked and muddled when we pulled up in front of the house.
The Book of Job is sunk in sorrow. It tells the troubling story of a man tested by every misfortune, including the egregious speeches of his friends, who manages nonetheless to keep faith. Job refuses to turn away from the God who has turned away from him.
Our ideas of God are expressed through metaphors. Since we cannot begin to know what God is, we try to imagine what God is like — a King, a rock, a father, a fortress, a protector. As we expand our images so we expand our conception of God.
When the Torah reading is completed in most synagogues, the scroll is held aloft and the congregation chants, “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 4:44). Ashkenazim add “at the Lord’s bidding through Moses” (Numbers 9:23). In Sephardic synagogues, the scroll is generally raised before, not after, the reading.