Musings

The Unfinished Symphony

03/08/2011

We say that clocks go tick-tock. But they don’t. They go tick-tick. We supply the tock.

This observation, made by literary critic Frank Kermode in his classic work “The Sense of an Ending,” is a product of the human need for endings. We can’t stand to listen to music without the final resolving chord; we don’t like movies that refuse to wrap up neatly. We check how many pages are left in the book until we get to the ending. Tock.

Incidental Contact

03/01/2011

A charming story from the late, beloved Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Waxman. Once while visiting Greece, he was invited out to dinner. On the way, stopped to buy flowers for his host from a vendor in the street. He asked the price. The vendor said “26 drachmas.” When Rabbi Waxman reached into his wallet to pay him, the vendor said: “That’s not how it works.

True Understanding

02/22/2011

Why is it that when we think badly of others, we are convinced of our smarts? How often have I spoken to someone who interprets another’s actions in a negative light, and when I urge them to consider the positive possibilities, I am answered by an indignant, “Rabbi, do you think I’m stupid?” Somehow believing the worst about another is taken as a sign of intellect; judging others the way the Mishna advises — that is, favorably — is thought gullible and weak-minded.

Freedom In The Land Of The Pharaohs?

02/15/2011

Until these past weeks, the only precedent for liberation in Egypt was leaving it. The exodus paradigm of liberation by leaving applies to many parts of life. There are abusive homes where one can only be saved by escape. Throughout history, persecuting nations have made it impossible to seek freedom within their borders; hope lay in running away.

Lighting The Way

02/01/2011

‘Light is stored up for the righteous,” writes the Psalmist. In the Torah, light is created on the first day. Yet the sun is not fashioned until the fourth day. The Rabbis teach that the light of the first day is a mystical light; one day it will be liberated by our goodness.

Rising Up

01/25/2011

During the kedusha, the central moment in the Jewish prayer service, we stand with feet together and say, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.” Rising on our toes, we pattern ourselves on the angels of Isaiah’s vision. Do we wish to be angels? The answer is yes. And no.

Angels do have some advantages. They do not sin. They dwell in ethereal realms with God. In Hebrew, the word for angel is mal’ach, which means messenger. In the Bible angels are messengers of God.

In The New Year, Look To The Old

01/18/2011

 

I read the newspaper each day, an old practice that brings home everything new. There is always a new celebrity, a new invention, a burgeoning business. We can stuff ourselves with the new. Old books and movies are forgotten unless they are remade.

Judaism has a different attitude toward what is old. Our tradition always understood that the first step to obliterating culture is to foreshorten memory. Here is a poignant passage from a not-so-very-old novel, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”:

In The New Year, Look To The Old

01/11/2011

I read the newspaper each day, an old practice that brings home everything new. There is always a new celebrity, a new invention, a burgeoning business. We can stuff ourselves with the new. Old books and movies are forgotten unless they are remade.

Judaism has a different attitude toward what is old. Our tradition always understood that the first step to obliterating culture is to foreshorten memory. Here is a poignant passage from a not-so-very-old novel, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”:

Everyday Sacredness

01/04/2011

In life the everyday mixes with the eternal. Is it holy to sit on a committee or sacred to oversee synagogue budgets? This problem disturbed the great English constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot. In a memorable passage he writes: “There seems to be an unalterable contradiction between the human mind and its employments. How can a soul be a merchant? What relation to an immortal being have the price of linseed, the fall of butter, the tare on tallow, the brokerage on hemp? Can an undying creature debit ‘petty expenses’ and charge for ‘carriage paid’?”

Choose Goodness

12/21/2010

 

 

The great question of why God permits evil is usually treated in Judaism less as a “why” question than as a “what” question: Given the evil in the world, what do we do about it?

We can wonder about God’s role, but it is ultimately inscrutable. We cannot know. Imagine how little a 2-year-old understands an adult. He cannot even understand what he does not know. The Jewish tradition conceives of the gap between humans and God as far greater than that between an adult and an infant. So how, ultimately, can we understand?

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