I was honored yesterday to give the invocation at the Northwestern baccalaureate service, held in advance of Commencement. In my invocation, I talked about the important image in Jewish thought of God as teacher: melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael, Who teaches Torah to God’s people Israel. I talked about the exquisite divine mystery inherent in a moment of teaching and learning, a moment as profound as that of creation. And I exhorted the graduates to emulate God, not only in God’s attributes of mercy and kindness, but to be like God the teacher–to recognize that we are all teachers.

In the Torah portion of Shelach (Num. 13-15), we witness one of the profound moments when God is not so much the teacher, as the learner. Moses is the one who instructs God, and in so doing he teaches us–and God Himself.

You will recall that after the spies bring back their report of the land of Israel and the people lose faith in their ability to conquer the land, God declares to Moses: “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (Num. 14:11-12). Moses’s response is instructive–to God and to us. He says:

“Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, LORD, are with these people and that you, LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’

 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (Num. 14:13-19).

It is worth looking closely at this response. Moses does not immediately appeal to God’s mercy, or to the contradiction between God’s espoused attributes of forgiveness and His anger at the Israelites in this moment. No–he first puts the situation within a political context: What will the Egyptians think? What will the Canaanites think? It would be a shonda for the goyim!

What is Moses doing here? Rashi interprets him to mean that the Egyptians would conclude that in fact they had not sinned in their treatment of the Israelites, and thus the message of God’s actions in the Exodus would be lost. Ramban understands Moses to mean something slightly different: the Egyptians would think that the Canaanite gods were stronger than their own, and would thus exchange one idolatry for another. In either case, however, the fundamental message is the same: God’s goal in the Exodus had been to make Egypt, and by extension the world, recognize that God was the unique and absolute power in the universe. If God didn’t make good on delivering the Israelites into the promised land, then all God’s actions would not only be for naught, but God’s goal would be set back.

It is only after he has made this political point that Moses goes for the moral argument: God, in our most intimate moment, when You revealed Your glory to me, You told me that your essence is compassion and forgiveness. You’re contradicting Yourself–in fact, You’re not being Yourself. So be Yourself, don’t give in to the temptation of anger, and forgive these people.

And amazingly–or perhaps not so amazingly after all–God agrees: “The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked” (Num. 14:20).

This is a radical moment–Moses teaches God. And Moses does it with the patience and courage of a teacher: he lets the issue ripen. He recognizes that God is angry at Israel, and so he doesn’t immediately seek forgiveness for Israel. Rather, he first helps God to realize the mistake God would be making; and then he reminds God to be Godself, and to turn back to Israel in forgiveness.

The first time I met Parker Palmer, he asked me to think of a moment with a student that had been a particularly effective one in my teaching. And then he asked me a question I had never thought to ask. Where most people would ask, “What did you do as a teacher to make that moment?” Parker instead asked me, “What was it about that student that enabled your teaching to work?”

Parker’s question is a reminder to us that this story is not only about Moses as an exemplary teacher. It is also about God as a learner. Hillel the Elder said, “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach” (Avot 2:5). We know that teaching requires courage. But Hillel reminds us, as does God, that learning does as well. To truly learn, especially in profound moments, one must courageously admit that one is incomplete, that one can change and grow. In the interaction between Moses and God in the Torah portion of Shelach, it is none other than God who humbly teaches us the essence of learning.

Shabbat shalom.


The word shir in Hebrew has a double-meaning, or a double-translation, in English: A shir is both a song and a poem. Whereas we make these two distinct, though often connected, experiences, in Hebrew they remain fused, ambiguous.

It is with that understanding that we begin to think about Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song whose names comes from the most prominent song of the Torah, the Song at the Sea. Or perhaps it is the Shabbat of Poetry, from the Poem at the sea? Our association with song, with music, is so strong that already in the act of translating Shabbat Shirah we slip and don’t give poetry its due.

But let’s think about poetry for a little bit. Poetry is a different way of communicating, a different way of thinking. Prose is powerful because it is linear, because it can lay out an argument and prove it. But poetry has other powers, powers of persuasion that appeal to a different part of our beings. Vladimir Jankelevitch helps us think about the uses of poetry (and music) by contrasting them with the linear, scientific ways of prose: “One would criticize a mathematician or a civil code for saying the same thing twice when saying it once is sufficient. But one does not reproach a Psalmist for repeating himself—because he aims to create religious obsession in us and not develop ideas.”

The Shirah, the Poem-Song of the Sea, does not speak in straight lines. It is built on repetitions and cadences, it is sung to a special tune. Its purpose is not to make a point through logic, but to arouse our passion and speak to our imagination. Foreshadowing the midrash on Revelation we will read next week, the midrash this week memorably states that, at the Sea, a handmaiden saw more than the  prophet Ezekiel. The experience of salvation was prophetic; it was not logical. And so its expression is in poetry and song, not in the linear forms of prose.

Poetry is something of a lost and misunderstood world for most Americans these days. Even in our Torah learning, we look for historical, scientific, rational explanations, and we can feel a bit displaced (or even freak out) when the understandings we explore do not jibe with the rules of science. But to try to explain miracles like the Splitting of the Sea according to science is missing the point; it is using the wrong language.

Parker Palmer writes that the inner truth of the heart “is not well-served by the language of science, social science, or management theory. Inner truth is best conveyed by the language of the heart, of image and metaphor, of poetry, and it is best understood by people for whom poetry is a second language.” What is poetry, he asks, “if not, among other things, an instrument that helps us take readings of our own hearts?”

As we talk this week about how to talk better, how to understand one another, how to be a more civil society, perhaps we should also be considering what poems we can read, what songs we can sing, and what other forms of communication we can explore to express ourselves and understand one another.

Shabbat shalom.

Earlier this week I was privileged to host a retreat of 16 Jewish educators and two master teachers from beyond the Jewish community, Parker Palmer and Marcy Jackson. Parker has spent the better part of the last 40 years writing, speaking, and teaching about issues of education, particularly the inner life of the teacher. He and Marcy co-founded the Center for Courage and Renewal, which has trained nearly 200 facilitators and 35,000 participants in methods of uncovering and recovering our “inner teachers,” the still, small voice of truth within.

There are more things than I can say in a blog post about what transpired and what happened. Some of us knew each other before this gathering, but even I–the organizer–was close with only a few of the participants. Yet over two days sitting in a circle, reading poems, sitting in silence, and speaking openly and honestly with each other, we enabled one another to be transformed.

In choosing the dates for this gathering, we followed the lead of Parker and Marcy. It turned out the best dates for them were November 30-December 1, meaning that our gathering concluded just as Hannukah began. And so, after sitting quietly in our closing circle, offering up our sense of gratitude with a spirit of renewed integrity, we took the candle that had been burning in the middle of the circle and used it to light a shamash, the helper candle that lights the actual lights of Hannukah. We sang the blessings, and we spontaneously broke into song and dancing.

It was a remarkable moment. For at its root, Hannukah is about the purity of Jewish life. It is about the struggle to maintain a unique language and culture within a globalizing movement that seeks to eliminate difference. In its origins, Hannukah is a violent holiday, commemorating a war. Yet here we were, a group of educated and committed Jews, who enabled ourselves to be held by and learn from our rebbeim and chaverim, our teachers and friends, from another tradition. And it was completely right, it was shalem (complete), and it was shalom.

The symbol and perhaps the essence of Hannukah is light–fragile, gentle, and yet immensely powerful, capable of both great good and great harm. Ner Adonai nishmat adam – “The lamp of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). The soul, the inner teacher, is the lamp of God.

The laws of Hannukah state that the Hannukah lights are not to be used in any way–we are only allowed to look at them. We have to honor their integrity, to give them the space to be uniquely them. And yet we know that in this real world we inhabit, nothing truly exists in isolation. And so, brilliantly, we light the shamash, the helper candle–a candle that enables the Hannukah candles to maintain their integrity and uniqueness while mixing with light that can be used.

Like the lights of Hannukah, our souls need helpers, our souls need a shamash. We need people and environments where we can hear our souls. It is possible, as the last two days remind me. It is not in heaven, it is not beyond the sea. But it is hard work, and it is miraculous.

Hannukah Sameach – Happy Hannukah.

One of the great comments of Rashi occurs on the verse in Parshat Vayishlach that relates Jacob’s response to the approach of his twin brother Esau with a small army: “And Jacob feared greatly and it troubled him.” (Gen. 32:8) Rashi picks up on the redundancy in the verse: why did the Torah need to state that Jacob both feared greatly and it troubled him? One phrase would have been sufficient. Rashi states:  “He feared that he would be killed, and it troubled him that it he might have to kill others.”

We read this is as a classic Jewish statement on the sanctity of life: we cannot allow ourselves to be killed, and we cannot allow ourselves to kill others. Judaism values life above everything else, and whenever we are forced to commit violence against other human beings it must be done in a way that demonstrates our reluctance. This ethic is embodied in the principles of Tohar HaNeshek, the ethical code of the Israel Defense Forces.

Yet this moment in Jacob’s life is also a watershed moment in the life of all human beings–the moment of paralysis that occurs when our hopes and dreams collide with reality. In Jacob’s case this takes place in a moment of acute crisis: all of his potential choices are lousy. But in less dramatic ways all of us suffer moments like this, when we feel paralyzed between options, none of which seem desirable. And what do we often do? Just what Jacob does: we divide ourselves. “And he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and the cattle and the camels, into two camps.” (Ibid.) Like Jacob, we hedge our bets, we cast multiple lifelines into the water.

Yet Jacob cannot long maintain this division. After he has laid all his plans, Jacob is left alone to wrestle with himself, in the form of a mysterious man. Jacob’s attempts to divide himself result in a blessing and a new name, Yisrael: “For you have striven with God and man and have proved able.” (Gen. 32:29) Eventually “Jacob arrived at the city of Shechem, complete” (Gen. 33:18), which Rashi explains means complete phsyically, financially, and spiritually.

What does Jacob’s wrestling mean to us? The long dark night of the soul is a moment all of us encounter.  And in that moment we probably begin with the same sort of paralysis that Jacob did. We move on to division, and ultimately to confronting ourselves. To be successful in that encounter, however, we cannot be truly alone, just as Jacob is not truly alone. “In a time of tension, we must endure with whatever love we can muster until that very tension draws a larger love into the scene. There is a name for the endurance we must practice until a larger love arrives: it is called suffering.” These words of Parker Palmer, while probably a little more Christian in tone than I would have composed them, reflect the mystery at the heart of Jacob’s encounter and our own long dark nights of the soul.  If we do it well, we emerge on the other side of those encounters  a new, more whole person.

Shabbat shalom.

The tone of much of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is one of loneliness. In the very first verse we learn that Sarah has died, according to midrashic tradition upon hearing of the news of the Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham cries over his wife’s death, and sends his servant Eliezer off to his homeland to find a wife for his son. Eliezer’s journey is a lonely one, and his only companion is God.

Until he is welcomed by Rebecca. From the moment Rebecca enters the story, a new sense of promise emerges. She is open and friendly, kind and courageous–both in her welcoming of a stranger and in her decision to go to a faraway land to marry an unknown man. This warm quality of the story reaches its climax when Isaac brings Rebecca “into his mother’s tent” (Gen. 24:67) and is comforted. A midrash relates that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud of glory hovered over the entrance to her tent, her doors were wide open to wayfarers, and a lamp was light in her tent from one Shabbat to the next. When she died, all these things ceased. But when Rebecca came along, they returned. (Genesis Rabbah 60:16)

One of my favorite teachers, Parker Palmer, has a wonderful exercise in which he asks his students to think of a great teacher in their life. At this point, most people would ask the question, What is it about that teacher that makes them so good? But Palmer asks a different question: What was it about you that enabled that person to be such a great teacher? 

As I wrote about last week, we often tend to look at our stories from a familiar perspective. In this case, we tend to look at this story of Rebecca and talk about her admirable qualities: her openness, her hospitality, her lovingkindness. But we can also look at the story from the perspective of Isaac and ask, what was it about him that enabled Rebecca to be such a model? Rebecca was able to fill a void in Isaac’s life. It was not simply through her personality that the warmth of Sarah’s tent was restored; this came about through her partnership with Isaac, through her fulfillment of a need created by Isaac’s life–a need for comfort, acceptance, and love.

This past week the Northwestern community was shaken by the death of a student, Trevor Boehm. In the aftermath of this tragedy, many of us are asking ourselves what we could have done, or what more we can do. And I think part of the answer comes to us this week in the model of Rebecca. We are each capable of lighting a warm lamp within the tent of our friends and neighbors. The question we must ask ourselves is the question of the great Shoah survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl: What does the world demand of me? The world, and its inhabitants, our fellow travelers, needs something from all of us. Finding that something begins with an open heart.