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Posts from the ‘drashot’ Category

The Work of Prophets

Among the writings, papers, books and essays I have come across in my day, one quote rises above all others for its resonance, its salient criticism coupled with its invitation for improvement.

Abraham Joshua Heschel opens his major philosophical work, God in Search of Man, with words stunning in their sharpness, words that will be familiar to many of you with whom I have had the honor of studying this past year. The opening words to Heschel’s magnum opus declare:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

Religion’s demise in modernity, says Heschel, is its own fault, a direct result of its inability to captivate the hearts and minds of its practitioners. Coming from arguably the most influential rabbi in twentieth century America, these words offer a acute critique of religion as we know it.

Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

Heschel, through his very being, showed us a way to remedy this malady. For Heschel was a man who dedicated his life to embodying a Judaism which has the power to transform worlds, a Judaism that speaks intimately to the soul. Heschel was a man who demanded we do nothing short of praying with our feet – allowing our prayers to infuse our very being such that our actions on this earth make manifest the very godliness and goodness that we pronounce in our liturgy.

Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

That need not be the religion that we hold dear. Judaism is relevant when it speaks to the issues of the day. Judaism is interesting when it when it helps us find answers to life’s greatest problems. Judaism is relieving when it offers an optimism that can lift our spirits and help us out of the depths of life’s morass.

On this most holy day, as we introspect and afflict our souls to repent and return to a more goodly path, we may be tempted to think that Heschel’s message is not the most pressing of issues. We may be tempted to let introspection turn us inward, closing us off to the world around us. We may be tempted to let teshuva monopolize our attention as a uniquely personal exercise. We may be tempted to fast, to abstain from food and drink and pleasure solely as a means of self-flagellation and punishment.

We could not be more wrong. Read more

Awake

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, thousands upon thousands of Jews would enter its gates every day to join in the business of Jewish offerings to the Divine. Along the southern wall of the holy complex was the Hulda Gate, actually a pair of passages – three arches on the right side and two on the left. Any person entering the Temple came through this entryway.

The Mishnah recounts that there was a very particular process for entering Beit HaMikdash – the Temple – through the Hulda gate. Not much different than the system of driving or walking that we live out to this very day, everyone entered on the right and exited on the left.

Thousands of Jews every day, approaching their Creator in service and admiration passed through the three arches on the eastern side of the Southern Wall as they entered, and passed through the two arches on the western side as they left. Imagine the enormity of the experience. Thousands of worshippers walking through three narrow passages on their way into the complex, and then again through two even narrower passages on their way out. A flood of devotees approached through small channels of entrance and exit all in the same direction.

But there was an exception to this flow. Read more

Thanks

One year ago today, I stood on this pulpit and spoke with you about the children’s poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, that classic piece of poetry that explores the profound meaning found in the liminal space between asphalt and concrete.

We discussed the metaphor implicit within Shel Silverstein’s writing, how the messiness of that place where the sidewalk ends is the reality of all our lives, the meaning implicit in this holiday of the New Year. How each and every year we live our lives in the turbulent space where the sidewalk ends, where the smoke blows black and asphalt flowers fill pits and cracks, and that our purpose on this earth is to find a way to walk forward in spite of life’s messiness. Read more

Where the Sidewalk Ends

If you’ve ever taken the time to glance at the streets around Shearith Israel as you leave the building, you’ve noticed just how stunning they are. On these warm late-summer days, I relish the 15 minute walk I have each Shabbat as I head home.

I walk past the magnolias and manicured lawns, pink Roman columns and royal iron gates, and get lost in my thoughts for a few moments of bliss – the only time each week when I truly detach from the world of worry, and tasks, and business.

That tranquility of my day-dreaming is only distracted by a game that I must play as I walk the streets of Douglas and Preston, a game which brings me rushing back from peaceful thoughts into the real world of zooming cars driving right at me.

You see, as I walk opposing the roaring zoom of traffic on my Shabbos stroll, I hug the curb, hoping that each car will see me as it approaches and change lanes, moving over so that I need not.

I stay there, in the gutter of the street, in stubborn stubborn defiance for as long as my nerves can manage as a car quickly approaches before hopping at the last moment into the dirt and planters to my side so as not to be run over. Each car comes, I stay on the street as long as I can muster. Most of the time I win, the car changes lanes and I stay put in my place, but often I end up walking in dirt.

Now, I play this game of chicken, I walk foolishly – I admit – in the street of a busy highway, because there is, literally, nowhere else to be.

When you walk out the doors of Shearith and turn right going down Douglas Avenue, you can follow the guided serenity of the sidewalk only until the end of our property. But once you pass the parking lot outside of Aaron Main Sanctuary, the sidewalk is no more. Our neighborhood is purposefully devoid of sidewalks – it was built that way to give it a more country-like feel!

Only a few yards from where we pray today is, quite literally, where the sidewalk ends.

Each time I walk this path, as I move from the security of concrete to the dark black asphalt beneath my feet, I am reminded of the old Shel Silverstein poem, the namesake of his most famous book of childhood poetry: Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The cover of his book, you may remember, is emblazoned with a drawing that so aptly describes the message of his poetry within – two children, peering cautiously over the edge of a sidewalk, itself hanging perilously over oblivion. Beyond is a chasm of emptiness, the very end of the world. They hang there, these two children, where the sidewalk ends, on the precipice of the unknown.

He writes:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Read more

AJWS Dvar Tzedek: Parshat Eikev

In Parashat Eikev, Moses offers the Israelites one of the most moving and persuasive encouragements toward Divine service found in the entire Torah.

As they stand on the edge of the Jordan, they are reminded that Divine service demands walking in the path of God:

“And now, O Israel, what does Adonai your God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve Adonai your God with all your heart and soul… Adonai your God is God supreme and Adonai supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.”

After offering his command to follow this “mighty” Creator, Moses continues with a description of the specific nature of God’s power. Given the many examples of God displaying great physical might, we might expect Moses to mention the Flood, the 10 plagues on Egypt or the splitting of the sea; yet Moses ignores these feats and, instead, continues his praise by focusing on the fact that God “shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”

God’s awesome power, Moses explains, is displayed through love for those afflicted by injustice, those most likely to be trampled on by society at large. Rather than physical might, it is God’s concern for the afflicted that we should emulate.

This is a provocative theological message, to be sure, and one that has crucial practical import for those of us who concern ourselves with the work of global justice. So often, public discourse bifurcates between those interested in exercising power through force and those interested in offering empathic aid as a means for influencing change in the world. We often associate power with oppression, rather than with those who speak out against it. This may leave many of us in the West uncomfortable with thinking of our social justice work as exercising “power,” but by asking us to emulate a God who does so to overcome injustice, our tradition invites us to embrace our empathic force and not to be shy about using it.

Parashat Eikev pushes us to see power and empathy as intrinsically linked, rather than opposites. By exercising power—and refusing to cede it to those with less altruistic goals—we follow in God’s path, realizing our human power through tzedakah and political advocacy.

In fact, Rabbi Abraham, son of the Rambam, instructs us not only to realize our power but to be generous with it, using it to support those who are vulnerable. He teaches, “Proper generosity involves not only money and goods, but also power . . . Generosity with power entails using [the power] bestowed [on us] by God to help those in need . . .”

The work of global justice—helping to alleviate poverty, empowering the voiceless, bringing equality to those corners of the earth still shackled in inequality—is a supremely powerful act that is directly inspired by God’s own concern for the oppressed.

As we strive to serve God, we would be well-served to emulate the Holy One’s great qualities of awesome might coupled with empathy for those afflicted by injustice. We have a convenient reminder to do so thrice daily, as Moses’s iconic description of the Holy One in this parashah as “great, mighty and awesome” is repeated at the beginning of the Amidah—the central petitionary prayer of Jewish worship. In beseeching our Creator for blessing in this world, let us not only focus on God’s physical might but on God’s empathic power, and remind ourselves that upholding the cause of those forgotten around the world is an act of emulating and employing this awesome Divine attribute. This is how we serve our Creator. This, Moses teaches, is what God demands of us.