William Hamilton


“I need the Rebbe’s help” a desperate person once wrote. “I don’t know where else to turn.  I am lost and confused.  My prayers aren’t helping.  I need the Rebbe’s advice.”  The Rebbe replied without writing a single word.  He simply circled the first word of each sentence.

When we are self-encased, help feels far away.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, which we learn this Shabbat, speaks more in the first-person singular than any other biblical book.  Hence, progress is illusive.  Despair’s ceiling is too low.  Sukkot’s remedy is to ingather, to collect and share with others.  Even so, when we dwell in the temporary Sukkah, we may find that nature’s fragility alludes to human nature’s fragility.

Yesterday’s testimony was raw and revealing.  Advice and consent from the United States Senate will not suffice.  Lawmakers struggle to operate simultaneously with the legal, the political, the moral, and the human.  We do not vote to confer validity on emotions.  Our institutions are built to preserve order, prevent harm, and keep us free – not to distill feelings or disentangle contradictions.

A matter on which God is most emotional is worshiping graven images.  Why?  What’s wrong with diverting worship toward nature’s grander settings?  Leon Kass wisely suggests an answer.  Nature cannot teach us anything about righteousness, holiness, or human decency.  Herein lies a vital difference between nature and human nature.

God’s holiness can ventilate suffocating selfishness, but not always.  How can we tell when it has?  When it causes us to gather the scattered, to unite what lies in strife, then it is integrating and good.  Alternatively, when it generates excessive pride, making us indifferent to the sensitivities of others, then it is disintegrating and not good.

Perhaps we should measure the validity of a testimony not by what comes of it, but by what comes of us because of it.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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