Paul Greenberg

Why? That's what an irate reader in Pine Bluff wanted to know. A local businessman, he came to see me at the paper one day to object. Heatedly. He felt what I was doing was bad Public Relations for the town. Why did I have to bring up this up every year? The guy was just a bum passing through.

I couldn't give him a good answer; I wasn't sure why I did it myself, at least not till years later. That's when I heard a story about a young rabbi in the old country, a brilliant student who'd graduated at the top of his class at the yeshiva, the rabbinical seminary. Naturally, with his record, he was appointed junior rabbi at the most prestigious synagogue in the biggest city around -- Warsaw itself. And when the time came for him to deliver his first sermon, the sanctuary was packed. But all he did was say the same old things: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Don't hold grudges. Be kind to one another. Forgive each other as we hope to be forgiven. Do not do unto your neighbor what is hateful to yourself. ... All that old stuff. Boring.

The president of the congregation had to take the young rabbi aside and explain that the comfortable pews here at the Grand Synagogue were full of well-educated people, prosperous and sophisticated. They were accustomed to hearing rabbis who were up to date, who linked Scripture to important things like Current Events, or gave book reviews of the latest hit novel. In short, maybe he would be happier someplace else till he got a little more seasoning. So he moved on.

But the same thing happened wherever he landed. He would just recite the same lessons from Scripture, neither adding nor detracting from it, and he would be told the same thing: Maybe he would be happier elsewhere. Till finally he found himself a pulpit in the back of beyond -- a little wooden hut of a synagogue deep in the Siberian snows. And even there an elder took him aside one day to explain that he really needed to update his sermons. Because even out here people had heard that stuff before. And the rabbi explained: "Oh, I'm not saying these things to teach you fine people anything you don't already know. I'm saying these things so I shouldn't forget."

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.