September 2009

For an audio recording, please click here.

There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this: A rabbi was distressed at the lack of generosity among his congregants. So he prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.

“And has your prayer been answered?” asked his wife.

“Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”

As funny as the joke is, we know it wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t at least a little bit true.

There has not been a time in human history when generosity matched the need for it. The Torah reminds us of this in the book of Deuteronomy:

“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land,” says Moses. Despite our best attempts, human beings will always be in need.

And so, says Moses, “I command you: open your hand to the poor and the needy kinsman in your land” (Deut. 15:11)

Patoach tiftach et yadcha — “Open, open your hand.” The Torah’s response to need is openness. It is generosity: The generosity of responsibility; the generosity of sacrifice; the generosity of Yom Kippur.

I would like to share with you today three stories about these themes–openness, generosity, responsibility, and sacrifice.


The Talmud presents three stories about Hillel the Elder (Hillel Hazaken) and his counterpart, Shammai, and their interactions with converts. In each of the stories, Hillel is generous and welcoming, where Shammai shoos them away.

In the first of these stories, the would-be convert comes to Shammai and asks him “How many Torahs do you have?” Shammai tells him there are two: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The convert tells Shammai he will convert to Judaism if he only needs to accept the Written Torah. Shammai “became furious with him and ejected him with a rebuke.” He then went to Hillel, who accepted him under the same conditions. Hillel began to teach him the Hebrew alphabet–aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, etc. The next day Hillel reversed the order, teaching the convert that dalet was first, gimel second, etc. The convert said to Hillel, “But yesterday you taught me the opposite!” Hillel responded: “Evidently you put your trust in me to teach you the alphabet. So trust me about the Oral Law as well.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a)

We studied this story in our weekly staff Torah learning this morning. What stuck us as we read it was that Hillel is willing to establish a relationship, to build trust–faith–with the convert, and then to up the ante once trust is established. He is presented here as the consummate educator, the teacher who meets his student where the student is, and on the basis of a trusting relationship brings the student to greater knowledge and commitment.

Another story we studied this morning demonstrates a second aspect of trust: “One day Hillel the Elder was returning from a journey. As he approached his neighborhood he heard cries. He said, ‘I am confident that the cries do not come from my house.’ This is an illustration of the verse (Psalms 112:7), ‘He is not afraid of evil tidings, his heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.'” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 15:3)

Here Hillel is presented as someone with ultimate trust, or faith, in God. This can easily be mis-read as a kind of naive faith. I don’t think that’s what the text is trying to say. Hillel’s attitude towards life is calm and resilient; his first instinct is not to worry, but rather to firmly trust in the strength of his heart and the support of God.

Trust and faith thus figure prominently in both of these stories, as they do generally in the stories of Hillel. What makes Hillel such a compelling figure is his emunah, his faith. Not, as I stated earlier, a naive or blind faith, but rather a faith that leads him to act generously and graciously, to never lose his temper, to focus on the possibilities of human encounters rather than on their risks.

As we enter Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur, Hillel reminds us of the kind of person we aspire to be–patient, giving, and secure in his faith.

Shabbat shalom – Gemar chatima tova.

For an audio recording, click here.

How many of you are familiar with the children’s stories of Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel? Frog and Toad are favorites of my kids. I have a hunch that Lobel drew some of his inspiration for them from the stories of the city of Chelm in Jewish folklore. They are humorous and usually reveal a moral lesson by way of something a little bit absurd.

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is called ‘Tomorrow.’ It goes like this:

Toad woke up. “Drat,” he said. “This house is a mess. I have so much work to do.”

Frog looked through the window. “Toad, you are right,” said Frog. “It is a mess.”

Toad pulled the covers over his head. “I will do it tomorrow,” said Toad. “Today I will take life easy.”

Frog came into the house. “Toad,” said Frog, “your pants and jacket are lying on the floor.”

“Tomorrow,” said Toad from under the covers.

“Your kitchen sink is filled with dirty dishes,” said Frog.

“Tomorrow,” said Toad.

“There is dust on your chairs.”

“Tomorrow,” said Toad.

“Your windows need scrubbing,” said Frog. “Your plants need watering.”

“Tomorrow!” cried Toad. “I will do it all tomorrow!”

Toad sat on the edge of his bed.

“Blah,” said Toad. “I feel down in the dumps.”

“Why?” asked Frog.

“I am thinking about tomorrow,” said Toad. (more…)

There has been a lot of chatter over the last week about the new ad campaign in Israel for Masa, the cooperative venture that sponsors long-term programs in Israel for North Americans. The video is below. The Hebrew roughly translates as: “More than 50% of Jewish youth in the diaspora are assimilated, and will ultimately be lost to us. If you have a relative in North America, connect them with Masa. A year in Israel leads to love of life.”

So a lot of people have been offended. I get it. But the real issue here isn’t offense (which I find to be a useless emotion), but the chasm that exists between Israelis and American Jews. The makers of this ad, which evidently comes directly from the Prime Minister’s office, simply don’t get what being Jewish is about for the vast majority of American Jews. For that, they might want to read my friend David Bryfman’s piece in this morning’s eJewishPhilanthropy about his study of American Jewish teenagers. The ad conveys direct failure on almost all of David’s ten points.

What this perhaps mostly boils down to is this: American Jews are becoming ever more de-institutionalized (for better or worse) and the State of Israel is presenting itself–at least in this campaign–as the ultimate Jewish institution (which it is). Israel can be so many things, and it is the best resource we have for helping strengthen the Jewish identity of American young adults. What emerges from this for me is that we need to do a much better job of building real relatonships and understanding between the two cultures. Otherwise we will indeed become two peoples.

You know that something is happening in the world when Bob Herbert and David Brooks write virtually the same words in the NYT (on the same page!).

Brooks reviews a new magazine, National Affairs, and praises it for occupying the middle ground (the “bloody crossroads”). But inevitably, he says, the magazine will have to deal with how government can inculcate altruistic personal behavior:

Can the state do anything to effectively promote virtuous behavior? Because when you get into the core problems, whether in Washington, California or on Wall Street, you keep seeing the same moral deficiencies: self-indulgence, irresponsibility and imprudence.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the op-ed page, we find this from Bob Herbert:

We’ve forgotten many of the fundamentals: how to live within our means, the benefits of shared sacrifice, the responsibilities that go with citizenship, the importance of a well-rounded education and tolerance.

It must be Elul. Here’s to doing better this year.

From this a.m.’s NYT:

Roosevelt understood that governing involved choice and that choice engendered dissent. He accepted opposition as part of the process. It is time for the Obama administration to step up to the plate and make some hard choices.

Health care reform enacted by a Democratic majority is still meaningful reform. Even if it is passed without Republican support, it would still be the law of the land.


As I believed when Obama was elected, real change is not possible given the existence of the United States Senate and its rules. The Senate is designed to be an anti-democratic institution–that’s the essence of having two senators for every state, as opposed to representation based on population, by which the House is organized. So all this talk about change, and all the talk about post-partisanship, has been and remains hooey.

A majority of the elected officials of the United States support Obama’s program. They should be able to vote in favor of that program; otherwise, what did we elect them for?