Jewish life is dependent on accurate weights and measures. We have minimum and maximum sizes that determine the height of a sukkah, the appropriate amount of matzah to constitute the mitzvah and the length of a Shabbat enclosure that ensures it’s kosher. We believe that articulating and being honest about weights and measures helps us have a life that is more rewarding and satisfying because it is quantifiable and, we hope, more honest. This is straight from Deuteronomy: “You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (25:15).
Israel makes moral errors, but that doesn't explain why irrational hatred of Israel and our people goes unchallenged.
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‘The Jews are alone in the world.” I never believed this statement growing up. It was paranoia, the mark of Jews who saw anti-Semitism in every rejection, denial or disagreement — personal or national. But I have learned otherwise this summer of our discontent, bent over American newspapers in the morning and listening to news broadcasts throughout the day. Remember Cynthia Ozick’s article in Commentary, “All the World Wants the Jews Dead?” I bristled then. I am confused now.
As we approach Tisha b’Av, I feel compelled to share a few thoughts from an early June trip to Italy. It’s a magical place by all accounts, but the hours we spent at the Coliseum and Forum were unexpectedly hard. Suddenly, the Three Weeks of mourning over the Temple’s destruction, and the loss of Jerusalem and our ancient political autonomy jumped off the pages of Lamentations. To see the Arch of Titus up close, with its chiseled menorah and Jewish exiles frozen in stone, was painful. To see public signage explaining that the Coliseum was paid for in part by the sacred vessels of our Temple brought anguish. We were forced to contribute to the brutality of 50,00-70,000 spectators watching humans and animals ripped apart for public entertainment, an anathema to our own tradition and values.
We’ve spoken before about Jewish conversational style: the fast pace, the interruptive jumps that hold enthusiasm but are often perceived as rude, the stubborn holding-on to topics despite lack of interest or the quick move from subject to subject. But we haven’t talked about what we say or don’t say, only how. Indulge me for a few minutes on the content of our speech.
We are approaching summer. Anyone remember last summer, the Jewish summer of scandal in New York? The heat returns, but we hope this time that light comes with it. We hope that these will be good months ahead, months where those in power feel the immense weight of personal responsibility weighing on their shoulders.
Breathe deeply and relax. Passover is behind us. But its leave-taking leaves us with a challenge. Ready?
We just finished the Maggid, the story of our exodus in the Haggadah. The infinitive “le-hagid” in Hebrew is to tell a story in expository style. Delve into it and speak it from one generation to the next. Three times in Exodus and one time in Deuteronomy do we find the command to tell the story to our children. The sages of the Talmud contrived from this repetition the notion of the “four sons” of our Haggadah. The unnecessary repetition signals the obligation to engage in differentiated learning. Tell it so that no matter whom you are telling it to, the story will feel fresh and relevant. This, of course, demands that we become master storytellers.
You know the biblical saying, “There is no prophet in his own town?” It means that people never listen to experts in their own area. Sometimes it refers to geography, sometimes to philosophy. People don’t trust local experts because we know them already. Answers lie elsewhere. Outsiders can get an aerial view of a situation — the balcony perspective — because they are not dragged down by local politics or the invisible limitations that organizations and individuals put on themselves. There is wisdom in this view, of course, but our use of outside experts can also be an excuse for not doing enough to utilize the people around us.
I went to the bakery to place an order for my bubbe’s birthday cake. The baker scribbled the date on his pad, “Whadya want on the cake?” “Something simple would be fine, like ‘Happy 100th Birthday.’” He looked up to see if I was serious. “We’ll make her something really nice.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this essay appeared in The Jewish Week Gala Journal in December.
Rabbi Judah, a Talmud scholar and scribe was once asked by Rabbi Yishmael to name his profession. Rabbi Judah told him that he was a scribe. Rabbi Yishmael responded: “Son, be careful in your work for it is the work of Heaven. If you omit a single letter or add a letter, you destroy the whole world.”