Inhabiting a Word


Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that His word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made us small enough to inhabit a word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Divorce Party

Once there was a happily married man and woman who lived in a small village. For years they prayed to God to provide them a child and, try as they might, it never happened for them. This made the man very sad. So sad, that he went one day to the Rabbi and asked for a certificate of divorce so that he could marry a woman who would be able to bear him children.

The Rabbi was a wise man and he knew that this request, if granted, would only lead to further unhappiness but custom dictated that the man’s request shouldn’t be denied. The Rabbi thought for a second and then said, “I will grant you your request but under one condition. You and your wife have spent 10 years together and that is something to be celebrated. Please, go celebrate your divorce as you would a wedding. Throw a party in honor of the time you two have spent together and the next day, I will grant you your certificate of divorce.”

The man actually thought this sounded like a wonderful idea so he set to work at once making the preparations. He invited all of their friends and family, got the finest wine, and the best food then, a few nights later, the celebration was had!

It was a splendid party. There was music and lively company, and the man’s wife was as beautiful as he had ever seen her in a brand new gown. Towards the end of the evening, the man, full of wine, was so favorably disposed that he announced to the woman in front of everybody, “My darling wife of ten years, though we part I do not want you to think I am not still fond of you. Ask for anything in this home and it shall be yours. Choose whichever of my possessions is most precious to you and take it home with you to your father’s house!”

The man’s wife smiled and accepted the offer. That was the last thing the man clearly remembered before passing out. When he awoke, he was lying in a strange bed. Startled, he ran down the stairs and there at a table sat his wife and her parents eating breakfast.

The man suddenly recognized where he was. Confused, he asked, “Did I get so drunk last night that I staggered to your former home?”

The man’s wife laughed. “No dear, last night at the party you invited me to take home the thing in the house that was most precious to me. So I had your friends carry you and put you in my bed.”

Suddenly the man came to his senses and realized how deep his wife’s love was for him and he could feel his own love deepening for her in his heart. He resolved not to go see the Rabbi for the certificate of divorce after all. And it was just as well because the Rabbi wasn’t really expecting him.

It’s been said that marriage is a union between two forgivers. In any relationship, we can make rash decisions and it is a true loving partner that reminds us of what is really precious. Love is based on honoring and cherishing the other person no matter whether they can provide you with what you think will make you happy or not. For those who walk in the way of Jesus, there may be another message in this parable as well. It is people, not goals, that are precious. The mission of the Church should never reduce beloved children of God to mere means to meet an end. We are called to focus our love and attention to human beings regardless of their imperfections or what they can or cannot provide, simply because they are made in the image of God. In life as in marriage, the secret to happiness is forgiveness and grace

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Rooster Prince


A very wealthy King had a young Prince who was to be heir to his entire Kingdom. The prince would wear fine robes and attend elaborate feasts where he would sit at the head of the table and discuss the great issues of the day with esteemed guests from all around the world. Everyone looked to the Prince for inspiration and leadership. 

One day, no one is really sure why, the Prince suddenly decided that he was a rooster. He stripped down to all but a loin cloth and squatted beneath the table pecking at scraps like the rest of the roosters, clucking and crowing as roosters do. At first, everybody thought this was a joke, but it soon became clear that the Prince had indeed convinced himself that he was a rooster.

This went on for weeks and the Prince didn’t snap out of it. He remained beneath the table in his loincloth, behaving like a rooster. The King was greatly disturbed and didn’t know what to do. He secretly had the best doctors in the Kingdom brought to the castle to try and restore the Prince to his former self. One by one, they did their best. Some tried to convince him logically that he was not a rooster with well reasoned arguments but the Prince would just look at them, turn his head sideways and cluck. Others tried to scare his sense back into him. Some even tried feeding him elaborate concoctions but none of it worked. The Prince still believed that he was not a Prince, but a rooster. Finally, the King brought in the local Rabbi.  

“Rabbi, please, I beg you,” said the King, “Restore my son to what he once was.”

The Rabbi looked at the Prince squatting under the table pecking at the scraps and said, “I believe I can do this but you’ll have to give me a week.”

The King agreed and the Rabbi set to work. He stripped to all but a loin cloth and got under the table and squatted. He pecked on the scraps and clucked and crowed like a rooster just like the Prince. The Prince immediately warmed to his fellow rooster.

 After two days of this, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know, we can still be roosters if we eat good food from plates. There’s no reason we must peck at these scraps.” 

The Prince shrugged and agreed with an approving, “BUCK BUCK,” so the King ordered the servants to put all the finest foods from the top of the table underneath the the table and for the next two days, the Prince and the Rabbi squatted under the table in nothing but their loincloths, clucking and crowing, while eating the finest foods with a knife and a fork.

After these two more days were up, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know we can still be roosters if we talk to one another. There’s no reason we must cluck and crow.”

The Prince looked at the Rabbi and said, “Sure. That makes sense.” So for the next two days, the Prince and the Rabbi squatted under the table in nothing but their loincloths, talking with one another, while eating the finest foods with a knife and a fork. 

Finally, on the sixth day, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know, we can still be roosters if we wear clothes and sit at the table. There’s no reason we must squat beneath the table in nothing but our loincloths.”

The Prince agreed to this and for the rest of the day, they sat at the table in their robes, talking with one another, while eating the finest foods imaginable with a knife and a fork. On the seventh day, the Rabbi bid farewell to his fellow rooster and the King thanked him from the bottom of his heart. For the rest of his days, the Prince did all the things a Prince (and later, a King) was supposed to do. He was a source of inspiration and leadership to the entire Kingdom and no one knew his secret: that deep down, no matter how he acted on the outside, he was still a rooster.

There is a profound truth at work in this engaging Jewish parable. We cannot bring true healing unless we are willing to get on people’s level. The meaning of the word “compassion” is to “suffer with.” Compassion means getting in the trenches with people and experiencing the world from their perspective. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we’re called to approach our neighbors the way he did. According to pastor and speaker, Ryan Leak, only 8% of Jesus’ miracles were performed in the synagogue. Jesus met people where they were at. He ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them, all the while offering steps towards healing and forgiving. When we come alongside people and help them take tiny steps toward wholeness, we are doing the sacred work of discipleship.  The way of Jesus is the way of suffering with others and bringing them through that suffering into new life. The Gospel is all just lofty talk if we are not willing, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet and the Rabbi ministering to the Rooster Prince, to strip down to our loincloth, get on our knees, and serve.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…


Majority Rules…


Rabbi Eliezer was famous for his extraordinary powers of persuasion. One day, he was arguing his theological position in front of a group of 10 sages. After Rabbi Eliezer had finished making what he had felt was a logically airtight argument, complete with many eloquent rhetorical flourishes and an overall sense of Holiness, he was satisfied the sages would agree with him. He had shown a mastery of scripture, appealed to all the great Rabbinical traditions, and had brought in the world’s great philosophers to bolster his case. All that was left was for the sages to vote. Eliezer was shocked when, after the vote, all ten sages rejected his position.

“I’m sorry Eliezer, it is 10 to 1. Majority rules and your position has been rejected.”

Rabbi Eliezer was dumbfounded that his great logic and rhetoric had not changed any minds, but he resolved to use more powerful means of persuasion. He said, “If I am correct, let this fig tree uproot itself and move to the other side of the yard.”

No sooner had the rabbi said this than the fig tree miraculously uprooted itself and moved to the other side of the yard. However, the sages were unmoved.

“No proof can be found in a fig tree,” they said.

“Fine…,” said Rabbi Eliezer, “If I am correct, let this stream we are standing by flow backward!”

No sooner had the Rabbi said this than the stream that they were all standing by began to flow in the other direction. However, the sages were still unpersuaded.

“No proof can be found in a stream,” they said.

Undeterred, Rabbi Eliezer bellowed in a commanding voice, “If my argument is correct, let God, Himself, say so…”

Suddenly, the clouds parted and a great shaft of light fell on the rabbi and the ten sages, and a voice, ancient and eternal, sounding like thunder and many rushing waters said, “My servant Eliezer is correct, listen to him!”

“Alright, Eliezer,” said the sages, “Now it’s 10 to 2…”

This humorous Jewish parable illustrates a profound truth: some people will never ever change their minds. Many times we expend a great deal of time and energy trying to win over people who are just not going to be won over. Disciples are of course called to share their faith and try to persuade others to trust in God but sadly some people will never be moved no matter what you say or do. In these cases we must pray that God will do in their hearts what we cannot, and then move on. Jesus, himself, could not convince his critics that his vision of God’s Kingdom was the right one. He was often frustrated with those who were hard hearted and stiff necked. Jesus focused on offering love and healing and sharing the good news with those whose hearts were opened to it. May the way of Jesus be our way as well.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Elijah’s Cup


The Rabbi Bel Shem Tov joyfully celebrated Passover every year with his disciples. They faithfully observed the Seder tradition of leaving a cup for the prophet Elijah at the table and opening the door for him towards the end of the meal. One year, when it came close to time for the Passover celebrations, one of the Rabbi’s disciples came to him and lamented:

“Every year, we celebrate Pesach together and every year we leave a cup for Elijah and every year we open the door for him towards the end of the meal. Yet, year after year, he fails to show. Why does the ancient prophet spurn us so?” 

Rabbi gave this question some thought before responding. 

“Let me tell you what you must do,” he said, “On the first night of Passover, pack up a cart with food, wine, matzos, and gifts for children. Go to the next village over. There is a small house in the poorest part of town with a green painted bench outside. Go into this home and celebrate Passover with the family inside. Elijah is sure to show up there.”

When the time came, the disciple did as the Rabbi had instructed. He showed up to the house with his cart. He was greeted warmly and invited inside. The kids loved their gifts and they all celebrated together. The disciple had a marvelous time that night but the prophet Elijah never showed up, even when they opened the door for him. His cup remained at its place untouched. The disciple came home dejected.

“I thought for sure Elijah would show up,” the Rabbi said, “He must have been delayed or you must have been late and missed him. I’m sure if you go even earlier next year, you will see him.”

The disciple awaited with anticipation all year until the holiday finally came back around. Then he did as he was instructed the year before. He loaded a cart with food, wine, matzos, and gifts for the kids, and he went to the instructed house, even earlier than the previous year. As he was wheeling his cart past the green painted bench to the door of the small house, he over heard a conversation. 

“What are we going to do?” the wife was asking her husband, “We don’t have anything to celebrate with this year. No food. No gifts. Nothing.”

“Do not worry,” he reassured her, “Don’t you remember how last year we had nothing to celebrate with and the prophet Elijah himself showed up with everything we needed for the meal? God provided for us last year and He will provide again this year.”

The disciple wiped several tears from his eyes, smiled, and walked through the door to take his place at the table and drink from his cup.

It is traditionally believed that Elijah will show up to mark the beginning of the Messianic age, bringing redemption to the people of Israel. For this reason, the Elijah Cup is always present at a Passover Seder as a symbol of hope and expectation. “Be the change you want to see.” is the central message of this beautiful Hasidic parable. Each of us can bring a little redemption to this Earth by showing kindness to those in need. May we who walk in the way of Jesus show warmth and hospitality to our brothers and sisters who celebrate Passover this week. Our traditions this week are very different but we are similarly brought to a table in the name of love. We similarly wait for a promise to be fulfilled. Let us not forget that in the meantime we can be instruments of redemption by showing kindness to our neighbors.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

When Night is Over…


A Rabbi once asked his disciples, “How do you know when night is over and dawn has come?”

“Night is over and dawn has come,” said one of the disciples, “when there is enough light that you can look out on a hillside, see an animal, and distinguish whether it is a sheep or a dog.”

“No,” said the Rabbi.

Another of the disciples decided to give the answer a try. “Night is over and dawn has come,” he said, “when there is enough light that you can look out into the yard, see a tree, and distinguish whether it is a fig tree or an olive tree.”

“No,” said the Rabbi again.

So the disciples asked the Rabbi to tell them the answer to the question. The Rabbi smiled and said,  “When you have enough light within you that you can look at a stranger and see a brother, then the night is finally over and dawn has come.”

“Sorrow may last for a night,” declares the Psalmist, “but joy comes in the morning.” What will that morning look like? How will we know it is upon us? This parable teaches us the simple truth that when we begin to see the world through the eyes of grace and compassion, morning is near. We see each other as through a glass darkly. We despise the faults in others that we excuse in ourselves. We do our best to not even see a stranger in need. But When we finally learn to see the image of God in others, we are walking in the light of Jesus. Night is finally behind us and dawn has come.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Standing on One Foot


During the period of the second temple, there was a gentile man who decided to devote himself to becoming a Jew. He had heard that the two greatest teachers of Judaism living in Jerusalem were Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. The man was unsure of which Rabbi to study under so he devised a test to choose his teacher.

First, the man knocked on the door of Rabbi Shammai. When Shammai came to the door, the man said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don’t nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Shammai replied, “What a ridiculous request! Look at all my students studying inside! They have devoted their entire lives to reading Torah and you propose to learn it in mere seconds? Begone!”

So the man continued on to Rabbi Hillel’s house and knocked on the door. When Hillel opened the door, the man again said, “I am interested in becoming a Jew but I don’t nearly have the time to devote to it that your followers do. Could you please sum up the Torah while I stand on one foot?”

Hillel thought for a second, then said, “Alright.” As the man stood on his one foot, Hillel spoke these words: “That which you hate, do not do to your neighbor. This sums up the entire Torah and the rest is just commentary.”

When the man put his other foot back down, he entered Hillel’s home and became one of his most devoted disciples.

Most of the world’s religions have some version of the “golden rule” and yet the world continues to be rife with conflict. For Christians, loving God and loving neighbor ought to be the twin poles that keep us oriented and yet we too often fail at the latter out of our zeal for the former. Loving others is the essence of loving God. Doing good is the essence of serving God. The Torah (and indeed the Christian scriptures) are summed up in the call to “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” The rest, as Rabbi Hillel reminds us, is just commentary.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…