October 2008

The story of the Flood is so familiar to many of us that we sometimes forget how remarkable it is: in the first place because God decides to destroy the world; second, because God decides to re-create the world after all; and third, because by the end of the story the relationship between God and humanity takes on a more mature character, encapsulated in the brit, the Covenant, symbolized by the rainbow: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.” (Gen. 9:16)

The Covenant is a two-way agreement. For God’s part, God promises that “So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” God promises predictability and order. For their part, human beings promise to maintain the basic standards of civilization, which the ancient Rabbis understood to include such items as: establishing courts of law; practicing monotheism; engaging only in permitted sexual relationships; and not murdering, robbing, or eating the limb of a living creature. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 56a)

The new relationship between God and humanity is marked by an important concept, that of accommodation: God recognizes the limitations of human beings, and human beings accept greater responsibility for their own behavior. God takes away the ultimate threat in the scheme of reward-and-punishment, the possibility of total annihilation. Instead, God and humanity enter into a committed relationship—one that allows room for mistakes and second chances.

In her important and influential book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Sharon Daloz Parks uses the idea of ‘shipwreck’ to help frame our understanding of the journey of young adults:

Metaphorical shipwreck may occur with the loss of a relationship, violence to one’s property, collapse of a career venture, physical illness or injury, defeat of a cause, a fateful choice that irrevocably reorders one’s life, betrayal by a community or government, or the discovery that an intellectual construct is inadequate. Sometimes we simply encounter someone, or some new experience or idea, that calls into question things as we have perceived them, or as they were taught to us, or as we had read, heard, or assumed. This kind of experience can suddenly rip into the fabric of life, or it may slowly yet just as surely unravel the meanings that have served as the home of the soul. (p. 28)

The story of the Flood is the paradigmatic story of shipwreck. All of the metaphorical examples in the paragraph above come true during the Flood. It is a terrifying story involving unimaginable death and destruction, vast darkness and painful isolation. And yet, as Parks continues,

On the other side of these experiences, if we do survive shipwreck—if we wash up on a new shore, perceiving more adequately how life really is—there is, eventually, gladness. It is gladness that pervades one’s whole being; there is a new sense of vitality, be it quiet or exuberant. Usually, however, there is more than relief in this gladness. There is transformation. We discover a new reality beyond the loss. Rarely are we able to replace, to completely recompose, what was before… But gladness arises from the discovery that life continues to unfold with meaning, with connections of significance and delight. (p. 29)

And in fact, Noah’s sense of gladness and gratitude precedes God’s covenant. It is only after Noah built an altar and sacrifices to God that God “smelled the pleasing odor” (Gen. 8:20) and promised to sustain the world.

Our work in the university is the holy and delicate work of guiding and mentoring young adults through what is frequently the most tumultuous period of their lives: the years when they are between their childhood home and their adult home that exists on the horizon. It is a time frequently punctuated by darkness and loneliness and challenges to their worldview. We would not want it any other way, because that is how we become mature adults, capable of entering into commitments and covenants of our own. Our work, then, is to walk with our students through these challenging years, these years when they are testing commitments to people, causes, and careers. Our aim is to sustain them with encouragement and validation, so that they emerge from the moments of shipwreck with a deeper sense of self and commitment to the world.

In his comment on Genesis 2:6, the great medieval commentator Rashi notes the unusual spelling of the word “vayitzer” in the verse “God fashioned man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” “Vayitzer,” “God fashioned,” is spelled with two yods, the tiny Hebrew letter that makes the “y” sound. The second yod is superfluous, so Rashi tells us that the second yod reveals a fundamental aspect of human identity: “Two natures [were implanted in man]: one for this world, and one for the word to come; but in the creation of animals, which will not stand in judgment, only one yod is used [see Gen. 2:19].”

In his comments on the rest of this verse, Rashi notes a number of other dualisms present in human nature: that we are made from both the earth and from the breath of God; that we are like the animals and yet different from them by the fact that we have the capacity for thought and speech. Rashi also offers two wonderful competing interpretations of what the Torah means by saying that God took the dust of the earth to fashion humanity: one interpretation holds that God took pieces of all four corners of the earth and brought them together in the human form; the other holds that “ha-adama,” “the earth” refers to the holiest spot on the earth, the Temple Mount.

From all of these competing interpretations we are reminded of the paradox and the possibility of our lives. We are a little higher than the animals, “a little lower than the angels” (Psalms 8:5). We are part of the earth, and yet we are separate from it. As the great twentieth century teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught, the two narratives of creation in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis buttress this paradox: Adam of chapter 1 is meant to rule the earth, while Adam of chapter 2 is to tend the garden.

Our lives are a constant push and pull between these parts of ourselves. At times we focus on our impulses, our desires, our natural selves; at others we emphasize our intellects, our plans, and our altruism. The Torah’s project, and the continuing Jewish project, is to help us navigate the dynamic tension of between these poles, to sanctify the world through our actions and to use all our potential for good. The Torah envisions us living integrated lives, where we bring together the religious and the secular, the particular and the universal, in way that gives honor to all of them. The task is not a simple one, and “it is not ours to complete, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:20)

Shabbat shalom

This morning’s Daily Northwestern writes about the development of an initiative I founded last year called AskBigQuestions. The article focuses in particular on ABQ’s growth from being exclusively sponsored by Hillel to becoming an independent entity with sponsoring organizations from a variety of religious and scholarly communities.

This piece (see page 67), which I wrote last spring, tells a bit of the history of AskBigQuestions. What has changed since that time is that we have figured out one of the central conundrums of the initiative, namely: How does it relate to Hillel’s mission of inspiring students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life? The Big Questions of ABQ are questions common to all human beings, regardless of one’s background. That’s precisely what makes it attractive to so many students. Yet it’s also what makes it difficult to explain to Jewish organizations and funders, who have often asked: “Why should we support something that brings together Jewish and non-Jewish students for discussions about topics that aren’t necessarily Jewish?” In other words, ABQ doesn’t promote Jewish particularism, it promotes humanism, and that’s not  necessarily part of Hillel’s agenda.

In moving ABQ outside of Hillel, while retaining a key sponsoring role for Hillel within a larger multivocal conversation, we’ve solved a key piece of this problem. The critics are right on this score: getting students in touch with life’s Big Questions is not solely Hillel’s challenge; rather, it is a challenge for the entire university community, of which Hillel is but one member.

Yet the key point remains: Hillel needs to be a leader in this effort, because we still believe in the fundamental value proposition that it is good for all students to ask these questions–including Jewish students. Our hope is that as all students engage the Big Questions of life, they will engage in the journey of self-discovery and engagement that leads to exploration of where they come from and development of their identity. My hope would be that through AskBigQuestions, Catholic students will explore their Catholic roots; Muslim students will explore their own beliefs and traditions; secular humanist students will look to the great philosophers; Jews will uncover Jewish ideas and texts; and all of these students will encounter one another. An image to represent this might be something like this:

This diagram represents what I think is the greatest aspect of AskBigQuestions:These questions are the common animating questions of the world’s great religious and scholarly traditions, and therefore they provide a common meeting point of conversation–or, what some of us would call the commons. By creating an environment in which we can explore, and not argue about, our multiple identities–secular, religious, ethnic, cultural–ABQ at once creates a universal humanistic common ground, and encourages particularistic expression. What we do with ABQ is redraw the line of religious and secular in a way that rejects the binary posited by so many in both religious and secular spheres, and instead includes them both in a common conversation about the meaning of human experience.

We don’t have to choose between being religious or secular, particularist or universalist. In today’s world, we have to be both: we have to go deeper in discovering our own identities at the same time as we go deeper in discovering what links us with one another.

As a follow up to my Yom Kippur sermon about cell phones and text messages (see below), a student sent me the following link to a Facebook group he created after hearing me speak:


He told me he was intrigued by how many people linked it to the idea of Shabbat. There was actually a great article a number of years ago in the New York Times Magazine called “Bring Back the Sabbath” that made this very point. And that is absolutely the point of Shabbat. Go get em Jordan Simkovic!

The Talmud relates a disagreement about the nature of the sukkot in which the children of Israel dwelt during their time in the desert. One position holds that the sukkot in the desert were “sukkot mamash,” real booths like the ones we put up today. The other holds that they were metaphorical sukkot, and really the sukkot we erect today are symbols for the “ananei hakavod,” the clouds of the divine presence that accompanied the Israelites on their journey.

Sukkot is a holiday of symbols: The sukkah and lulav & etrog invite interpretation. And indeed, each of these symbols has a long and rich history of interpretation, from representing various kinds of people (in the four species of palm, willow, myrtle and citron) to symbolizing the openness and welcoming tent that our community is meant to be (in the sukkah). In this sense, the sukkot of the ancient Israelites seems more like the clouds of God’s presence–they weren’t real sukkot, but rather signal a different dimension of existence.

Yet the sukkah, lulav and etrog are tangible, they are real. As these pictures attest, when we build a sukkah we’re not building a metaphor. We rely on math and geometry, planning and measuring, and ultimately execution, to erect a structure. The lulav really is green and pointy, and the etrog really is yellow and fragrant. These things do not exist as ideas in our mind; they exist in the real world. So in this sense, it makes more sense to say that the sukkot of the ancient Israelites were sukkot mamash, real sukkot.

Which is it? Like many good Jewish questions, the answer is “both.” The sukkah and the lulav and etrog are definitely real, but they are also symbols. Or, to reverse it, they are symbols, but they are also real.

Yet we should embrace the beauty of this paradox. That is the message of Sukkot. After the sense-denying day of Yom Kippur, Sukkot thrusts us back out into the world of physical existence and reminds us that our lives in this world are works of beauty. We are here for a purpose, and that purpose is to embrace and elevate the things of the world, and to do so in a way that validates and includes the many different types of creations and people in the world.

And at the end of Sukkot, we leave the sukkah behind and celebrate Simchat Torah–the real letters and words of the texts of our people. Those words have a physical reality, but they become symbols as well. And through their symbolism, they guide our real lives. We thus live in a constant dialogue between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be. That is the space in which Jewish life happens. We build the sukkah, we live in it, we learn in it, and then we take its message with us into a year of learning and study, a year of doing and action.

Chag sameach.

On May 8, 1951, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion of the nascent state of Israel visited President Harry Truman in the Oval Office, and presented him with a Menorah. At one point during the visit, Ben Gurion asked Truman, “Mr. President, tell me, how much does the average American earn in a year?”

Truman answered, “About $10,000.”

Ben Gurion continued, “And how much does he pay in taxes?”

Truman said, “About $5,000.”

“So what does he do with the extra $5,000?” Ben Gurion asked.

“Mr. Prime Minister, it’s a free country. We don’t ask.”


They continued to be photographed by reporters, and after a few moments, Truman turned to Ben Gurion and asked him, “Mr. Prime Minister, out of curiosity, how much does the average Israeli earn in a year?”

“About $5,000,” answered Ben Gurion.

“And how much does he pay in taxes?” asked Truman.

“About $10,000.”

“So where does he come up with the extra $5,000?”

“Mr. President, it’s a free country. We don’t ask.”


It’s an old joke that Israelis are perpetually overdrawn.  Yet we all know that at this moment, it is we in this country who are discovering just how much we owe. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, the Dow Industrials down nearly 2000 points in the last two months, $1 trillion in various bailout expenses. 

And that’s just to get started. 

According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation,

America and too many Americans have become addicted to debt. Every American is now burdened, most of them unknowingly, with more than $175,000 in federal liabilities and unfunded government promises.” 

And that’s before we even talk about auto loans, home mortgages, credit card debt, and college loans.

“Where do they come up with the extra money?” It’s a free country. Don’t ask. 

But my friends, it’s time to ask. What do we owe? And how will we pay it back?


On this Yom Kippur as perhaps on no other in the lifetime of most of the people in this room, it feels as if we are at a moment of reckoning, a moment when it is not only our spiritual life, but our financial life, that demands an accounting.

Now I am a rabbi, not a political leader or a professor of economics. So I do not have the grand solutions. But I do think that these enormous problems have their roots in some very basic issues, the most fundamental of which is this: We have failed to recognize each other. We have failed to recognize that we share the world with other people created in the image of God.

Chatanu, avinu, pashanu: We have sinned, we have erred, we have done wrong.

When I say we have failed to recognize each other, I mean that we have failed to recognize that we are born into debt. We are born owing others. We owe our parents, who fed us and clothed us, who changed our diapers and held us when we woke up from a bad dream. We owe our teachers, who sparked our curiosity, urged on our discovery, believed in us and challenged us and inspired us to be more. We owe our friends, who brought laughter to our lives and cheer to our hearts, who celebrated with us when times were good and consoled us when they were bad. We owe our neighbors. We owe our grandparents. We owe our sanitation workers, our policemen, our firefighters and our emergency workers. We owe our rabbis and our cantors, our social workers and our healers. We owe our soldiers. We owe our community organizers.

And we owe our children. Yes, we owe our children. We are born owing not just the images of God who came before us, and not just the images of God who raise us and teach us and provide for us. No, from the moment we are born we owe the images of God yet to be created. We owe those who will succeed us. We owe our children.

In the Torah portion of Nitzavim, which was read in synagogues not two weeks ago, Moses says to the people of Israel:

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your spouses, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God… as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant… not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deut. 29:9-15)

We are born into a Covenant, a sacred promise, a bond. Even before we were created, we were a part of that bond. Even before we were created, we had a debt to repay. And once we are created, others will be born on our account. They will have our ledger to reckon with. And my friends, we are leaving behind a seriously screwed up balance of accounts.

What we are witnessing today ultimately boils down to our failure to recognize the bonds that unite us. If we had recognized, truly recognized, the other people with whom we share our streets and towns, our nation and our world, we would have lived within our means. Instead, we have been greedy.

If we had recognized our fellow travelers on this planet as images of God, we would not have allowed the poor to continue to suffer as so many of us saw our incomes and retirement accounts grow with double-digit returns.  Instead, we have exploited the weak and the poor.

If we had recognized the sacred bond that unites us with those yet to be born, we would have spent only on things we could afford, and only taken on debt that we could repay. Instead, we have robbed our children and grandchildren. 

Chatanu, avinu, pashanu: We have sinned, we have erred, we have done wrong. We have been blind. We have failed to see. We have failed to recognize.


But all is not lost. Today is Yom Kippur. Today God gives us the miraculous opportunity to recognize what we have wrought, and to begin to repair it.

So how do we do better this year?

The first step is recognition. As the saying goes, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Today—not tomorrow, not a week from now, but today—we must examine our lives and ask, what do we do in our daily lives that keeps us from recognizing the image of God in our fellow human beings? I’m not just talking about giving money to a food pantry or calling the White House to protest the continuing genocide in Darfur, though those things are important.

Instead I’m talking about the little things in our lives, the little daily things, like knowing our neighbors and writing thank-you notes. I’m talking about helping clear the table when we’re a guest at dinner, and picking up our parents at the airport. I’m talking about throwing away a piece of litter that we see on the street, and using a reusable mug instead of a disposable cup when we go out for coffee.  I’m talking about holding the door for someone else to pass through, and saying a bracha, a blessing, before we take a bite of food.

I’m talking about improving our habits. 


There is one habit in particular that is so symbolic of our age and that—oh, hold on, excuse me. My phone is vibrating. I have to take this. Just a sec.

As I was saying, there is one habit that is so symbolic of our age, and that I think both symbolizes and contributes to our weakening capacity for recognition. And that habit is how we use our cell phones.

Now there is a beauty in the cell phone, of course. It enables us to be in more places at once. We can stay in touch with family and friends. The people who care about us can reach us at all hours of the day or night. They can text us and they can call us virtually anywhere, whether we’re walking or driving or the engineer on a train, or giving a sermon.

Yet those beautiful things are a double-edged sword. Because if we’re in two places at once—if we’re talking to a friend and texting with another one at the same time—we’re not fully in either place. We’re not fully present. And if we’re not fully present, we’re not fully recognizing the person we’re with. And if we’re not fully recognizing the person we’re with, we wind up missing things. In a conversation, we miss details, because we’re not fully listening. If we’re driving, we miss the cars on the road, because we’re not fully watching.  And if we’re the engineer on the train, we miss the signal that tells us to slow down, because we’re looking at our phone instead of at the track ahead. And people die. 

We tell ourselves that we can handle being in all these places at once. And maybe some of us can. But one of the limitations of being human is that while we can be partially present in multiple places simultaneously, we can only be fully present with one person at a time. We can see lots of people at once, but we can recognize only one person at a time.

My friends, the pace of our world has become so fast that we can fly across oceans in a matter of hours, and be talking and texting and instant messaging and g-chatting and facebooking and emailing with hundreds of others en route. But here’s the news: Activism doesn’t happen on your Facebook profile. Caring doesn’t happen in an email. Community doesn’t happen in a text message.

In his classic book Bowling Alonethe political scientist Robert Putnam observed that as we have built backyards instead of front porches, as we have become ever more focused on career and nuclear families over community and civic life, our habits of communal living have disintegrated. I would add that as we have created more and more technological advances that make us the centers of our own universes; as we have made instant gratification widely achievable through overnight delivery from Amazon.com or downloading movies from itunes; as we have prided self-expression and freedom over mutual responsibility and commitment, we have sown the seeds of the crisis in which we find ourselves.

We have become more selfish, and our society has become unwoven. We have stopped practicing the habits of recognition, the habits that make life not just good for me, but good for us. We have forgotten what it means to live in a community. We have forgotten what it means to be fully present for another. We have forgotten what it means to mentor a younger colleague. We have forgotten what it means to be an image of God, and we have forgotten how to recognize that image in others.

Yet performing that recognition is the aim and mission of the Jewish tradition. At the very beginning of our Torah, in the first acts of the Creation of the world, God’s actions serve as a model for our own. “And God saw the light, that it was good.” God took the time to look. God took the time to see and behold the thing that had just been created. And God did this again and again, looking and seeing and beholding and appreciating, until finally, at the end of the sixth day, “God saw all that He had made, that it was very good.” And then God rested. God stopped doing work, and God recognized all that He had done. God saw His creations, and God appreciated them.

We are images of God. We are meant to walk in God’s ways, to practice God’s habits. As images of God we too work and create and invent for six days. As images of God, at the end of each of those days, we too look and we recognize and we appreciate what we have done. As images of God we too pause at the end of six days, and recognize and appreciate and behold the very good things we have accomplished, the things we have created and the lives we have improved. And as images of God, we too rest on Shabbat. We unplug. We engage. We recognize the godliness in ourselves and the godliness in our fellow human beings.

So this year, on this Yom Kippur, let’s do teshuva. For the economics professors and the political leaders and the financiers in the room, I’ll leave the leadership of the economic crisis to you. But for the rest of us, let’s make this year a year of better habits. Let’s make this a year of greater restraint, a year of meaningful sacrifice. Let’s make this a year of more meaningful workweeks and more restful Shabbatot. Let’s make this a year of recognition, of looking and seeing and beholding the fulness of the image of God in our friends and neighbors and fellow human beings. Let’s make this a year when we are mindful of our financial and our moral debts, to those dead and alive and yet to be born. 

Gemar chatima tova, may we all be sealed in the book of life today.

The very first word of Parshat Vayelech is a strange one: Vayelech, and Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. (Deut. 31:1) Why does the Torah need to mention that Moses went? And where exactly did he go?

Two of the medieval commentators on the Torah, Ibn Ezra and Ramban, understand the verse to mean that Moses went to individuals and communities within the Israelite camp to take his leave from them before his death. Yet, as another commentator, Rashi, reminds us, Moses had lost none of his strength. He had simply come to the end of his time.

Moses’s going out among the people at the end of his life is a remarkable thing. While he was revered as the greatest prophet who ever lived, he humbly went among the people he had served to say goodbye in person. This is in keeping with a trait of Moses’s with which we are familiar: He was the humblest man on the face of the earth. (Num. 12:3)

Moses’s humility and his active walking among the people are essential reminders to us in this season of self-examination. Real teshuva requires humbling ourselves enough to admit our wrongs and to seek forgiveness. It requires going out to visit, face-to-face, the people who are important to us. Moses had a relationship with all of Israel, and here we see him taking those relationships seriously in the closing moments of his life.

“A person should do teshuva one day before his death,” says the sage Rabbi Eliezer (Avot 2:15). As many have pointed out, we never know when that day will come. During the High Holiday season, we take seriously the notion that each day could be our last, and we therefore tend to what is most important. Moses gives us the example of how to live each day as if it were the most important.

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