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 Sapphire Tablets

When Moses was on top of Mount Sinai, God spoke to him saying, “I am going to give you ten commandments etched on two tablets but you must first bring to me the two tablets.” Then God showed Moses the two sapphire stones the law would be written on and commanded Moses to bring them into his presence. Moses tried to lift the two stones and found that they were much too heavy for a single man to lift. After struggling with the stones, Moses finally gave up and said, “I am sorry. These tablets are much too heavy for one man to lift.”

God answered, “I wanted you to see this for yourself so that you would know the miracle I am about to perform. The words I am about to etch into these tablets have such power that they will lift the tablets for you.”

So God approached the tablets, his glory obscured by the cloud, and he began to etch in the sapphire tablets the words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” And each Hebrew word, as it was written by God’s own hand, blazed with holy fire, then glowed deep red. And each letter etched into the stone tablet took on a life of its own and sang a psalm of thanksgiving to the Creator.When God finished writing the commandments on the stone tablets. Moses picked them up and they were light as pillows. It was then that he realized the power that the words had given to the heavy stone.

As Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets in his arms, he heard the sound of laughter and drunken singing. As he came closer to the camp he could see the Hebrews had fashioned for themselves a giant golden calf and that they were worshipping it and engaging in all manner of perversion. When the glowing red letters on the tablets saw the revelry and apostasy, they were truly disgusted and they fled the stone tablets and flew to the top of Mount Sinai back to their divine source.

Suddenly, in the sight of all the people, the tablets once again became too heavy for Moses to carry and he dropped them on the ground where they smashed into a thousand pieces.

This midrashic tale was written in part to explain why Moses smashed the stone tablets when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Hebrews worshiping a molten image. The original story in Exodus 32 sure makes it seem like Moses smashes the tablets in anger but the ancient rabbis couldn’t fathom that a great man like Moses would behave in such a reckless way. They came up with many explanations but this creative story is far and away my favorite. More important than getting Moses off the hook, this midrash teaches us something profound. God’s word has power! It can lift even the heaviest burden but it cannot abide sin. God’s Word, even when etched in stone is living and dynamic. Those who walk in the way of Jesus are reminded by this parable of the Word who put on flesh and dwelt among us and lightens the burden of the law for us in bright red letters. Why would we bow to something manmade when we could follow the living Word back to the divine source of all things?

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…


There’s Nothing to be Afraid Of


Solomon Rosenberg tells this story from his time in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. He, his wife, his two sons, and his mother were all arrested and relocated to a labor camp. The rules were simple: As long as you could do your work, you were permitted to live. When you became too weak to do your work, then you were exterminated. The conditions were harsh and inhumane. The prisoners were given little to eat and the weak among them began to waste away until the inevitable day when they could no longer work and they were taken to the gas chambers.

Rosenberg watched his mother and father being marched off to their deaths when they became too weak. He knew that his youngest son, David, would be next because David had always been a frail child. Every evening when Rosenberg came back into the barracks after his hours of labor, he would search for the faces of his family. When he found them, they would huddle together, embrace one another, and thank God for another day of life. But each day, David looked just a little bit more frail and Solomon always feared the next day would be the day he was taken away.

One day Rosenberg came back and couldn’t find his family. He stormed through the barracks in a panic until he finally discovered his oldest son, Joshua, in a corner, huddled and weeping. 

“Josh,” he said, “tell me it’s not true.” 

Joshua looked up and said, “It is true, Poppa. Today David was not strong enough to do his work, so they came for him.”

“But where is your mother?” asked Mr. Rosenberg, “She is still strong enough to work!”

“Oh Poppa,” he exclaimed. “When they came for David, he was afraid and he was crying. Momma said, ‘There is nothing to be afraid of, David,’ and she pulled him close and held him. Then she took his hand and went with him so he wouldn’t have to be alone.”

Human beings are capable of unspeakable cruelty. But as this true story from one of the darkest times in human history shows us: we are also capable of unspeakable love. I always struggle with sharing holocaust stories. Part of me feels as though they are not my stories to tell. In some sense, sharing any parable from a faith not my own could be seen as an act of cultural appropriation but, at the same time, I truly believe stories are meant to be told. I believe Mr. Rosenberg meant for the story of his son and his wife’s sacrifice to be told as well. The meaning of the word compassion is to “suffer with.” This is what a mother cannot help but do for her own children and what both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament claim is true of God. We cannot break the dark and brutal cycle of history until we learn to see others sufferings as our own. The way of self-sacrificial love calls us to take one another by the hand and refuse to let them face the dark alone. When we do this we, ourselves, are candles shining in the night. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Chameleons on the Ark


Of course there were chameleons on the ark. There was every kind of animal on the ark and Noah was in charge of feeding them all. This was much harder than you’d think! Some animals ate plants, some nuts, some berries, and of course some animals ate other animals. Some ate during the day and some ate during the night. Some ate one large meal; some ate many tiny meals and Noah was in charge of figuring this all out. One particular animal that vexed him were the chameleons. Try as he might, Noah could not figure out what the chameleons ate.

The first day, he left them grass to eat and he came by the next day and the grass was still there. So he left berries but the following day the berries were untouched. The third day, he left flies and they were left alone on the fourth. This went on for awhile and Noah became more worried and frustrated as the chameleons became smaller and paler. He would say to the chameleons, “How I wish you would just tell me what you want to eat!” but each day, the chameleons continued to deteriorate in silence.

Finally, around day 15, Noah was passing by the chameleons’ cage with a pomegranate. As he stood there pitying the marvelous and mysterious creatures who would likely not survive the flood, he began to cut his pomegranate. As he cut into the center of the fruit, a worm hopped out and fell into the cage. One of the chameleons immediately seized the worm with their tongue and ate it. Surprised and relieved, Noah sent his sons to fetch some worms to restore the chameleons to health.

Later when the flood was over and Noah was watching all the animals file out of the ark, he spotted the two healthy chameleons and felt a great sense of relief that he was no longer responsible for their care.

This old Jewish midrash demonstrates the truth that God is a much better provider than we are. As human beings, we are often quick to criticize God’s management of the world but we don’t stop to think about all the intricacies and minute details that go into creation. This parable also speaks to our tendency to try and solve our problems without God. Noah worried himself with the fate of the chameleon and took their burden fully upon himself without praying for a solution. Surely the God who was in the midst of saving all of creation from the waters of the flood could be trusted to provide worms for two small chameleons. 

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…