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God Squad: Wise words from a wise man

Here, as every year, I send along to you, dear readers, a summary of my sermons for the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. If you attend my synagogue, you can read this and then sleep through my sermons knowing you really didn’t miss anything important.

I’m preaching this year on the famous teaching of a rabbi, Simeon ben Zoma, who lived almost 2,000 years ago.

Who is wise? One who learns from all people.

Who is a hero? One who subdues his inclination.

Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his portion.

Who is wise?

Becoming wise is not the same as becoming smart. Being smart means knowing what is. Being wise means knowing what matters. Ben Zoma knew that to become wise a person must be willing to learn from all people.

In the Hellenistic period, following the conquests of Alexander the Great in 333 B.C., the rabbis learned from the Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato, who taught that we have both bodies and souls, and they brought that teaching into Judaism where it later became a central part of Christianity and Islam. They added to the Greek ideas the biblical belief that God loves us and that love does not end with bodily death.

Just a few decades ago, Judaism, particularly Reform Judaism, again took a worldly teaching into our faith – the idea that men and women ought to have the same religious rights and horizons. In 1972, I was ordained with Sally Priesand, who was the first woman rabbi. Sometimes change comes slowly, but it inevitably comes when justice is pushing it.

Learning from all people in order to become wise does not always mean agreeing with them. It can also mean pushing back against the teachings of the world that distort God’s revelations and the moral wisdom of our ancient traditions.

Some of Ben Zoma’s colleagues and teachers, including Rabbi Akibah, were burned at the stake by the Romans. Their life-ending song was: You have to fight for your right to study. Kids know the Beastie Boys and their misogynist and violent lyrics and they do not know of Ben Zoma. Until they do, they will neither be wise nor pious, neither selfless nor secure.

Who is a hero?

Ben Zoma’s brilliant achievement in his second teaching was to turn the definition of heroism on its head. He defines a hero as a person who has overcome an internal, not an external enemy. He was the first Jewish thinker to define strength as self-control. Personally, I’ve always considered the greatest of all ben Zoma acolytes to have been Pogo, who once opined while rafting in the Okeefenoke Swamp, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

If some in our culture and our political and our religious institutions are embarrassing examples of people simply unable to subdue their base inclinations, then by contrast I lift up for praise all the 12-step programs that have done so much for so many to help them subdue their inclinations to moral lassitude. They teach in the steps that only “a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The 12-step program is a direct modern adaptation of the ancient teaching of ben Zoma, and through it ben Zoma has changed the world.

Who is rich?

Henry David Thoreau knew ben Zoma’s teaching was true. In his masterwork, “On Walden Pond,” he wrote, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

Recovering a sense of satisfaction with what we have doesn’t mean that we cannot want to succeed or to advance ourselves; it just means that our true happiness will not be affected by what we possess along the way. True happiness requires we find where our souls and God kiss.

We must be happy with OUR portion. Everything else is just not our business.

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