The great Greek playwright Aeschylus tells us that Prometheus gave the world two gifts: fire and ignorance of our own fate. In other words, an uncertain future, and the power to shape it; both light and darkness.
One of the greatest pleasures of Shabbat is disapproving of what other people wear. So please, permit me the pleasure.
The Talmud comments that honoring the Sabbath mandates that one’s dress not be the same as on weekdays. In the Torah, Rebecca helped Jacob impersonate his brother not only by putting hair on Jacob’s arms, but by dressing him in Esau’s clothes. Rabbi Naphtali of Rushpitz’s explanation is that Rebecca understood that dressing like Esau would allow Jacob to feel more like Esau, because what we wear affects who we are.
The human mind inclines toward certainty. Having been involved in my share of arguments, beginning with the childhood dinner table (an excellent place to learn both the skills of debate and the fine art of going only slightly too far), I know that arguing is mostly a process of persuading oneself that one was right in the first place. Who has not heard scientists extol the certainties of scientific knowledge, religious people astonishingly secure in their understanding of God, and all of us pronounce others “simply wrong” with no more prompting or expertise than the skill of thumping a fist and nodding a head?
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.