Off the Pulpit


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Older and Wiser?

When I was young I made an astonishing discovery about Jewish daily prayer. Each morning service had a confessional. I remember wondering, do we really sin each day? When I paid attention to my own conduct and that of my classmates, I realized the prescience of the tradition. We hit each other, hurt each other and often said cruel things. We were kids. The confessional gave us a moment in each service to think about what we had done and to face up to it before God. But I do remember thinking – surely when I get older I will…

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Marking Time

Before the final plague, the Torah sets out the calendar, announcing the first month in Spring. In slavery there is no distinction between days; each is a grueling succession of labor and harshness. But to be free means to mark time and shape it. At the very beginning of our journey as a people, God teaches us to create sacred time. The desert may seem eternally the same, but the days themselves will not be. We count by the moon, which changes, waxing and waning, hinting at the fullness to come. “This is the first month to you (Ex. 12:2).”…

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The Laughing Philosopher

Each of us has witnessed things that if unshared, the world will never know. I would like to tell you of a remarkable event I once saw, so that the image will live on. There is a custom in Israel on Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, for children, sometimes carried on the shoulders of their parents, to walk around the streets with plastic hammers, bopping people on the head. I don’t know its origin, but everyone who has been there has witnessed the glee. Many years ago on this day I was walking on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and I spotted…

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A Life Of Balance

Spirituality in modern teachings often emphasizes self-actualization. As a unique human being, you are called to develop your potential, your spark of godliness. The second side of this is the call of the ‘other.’A truly ethical life, in this view, is lived less by developing your own capacities than by devoting yourself to developing the capacities of other people. Sometimes the two are made into one – how do you awaken your own gifts? Through giving to others. While that is partly true, the simple solution is too simple. There are areas of cultivation that require solitude and even selfishness….

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Poetry Of Our People

I spent my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. There I studied literature and wrote a letter to my parents about how deeply I was enamored of the great British poets – Wordsworth, Burns, Byron and others. I will never forget my father’s reply. He told me he was glad I was getting so much out of the year. But then he reminded me that English literature became the literature of the world “on the backs of British soldiers.” Jews, he wrote, had poets but no armies; I should not neglect Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gabirol and Bialik and Tzernikovsky. For…

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What Makes A Congregation

In the book of Numbers, we are told that silver trumpets will summon the congregation and set the camps to march (10:2). In a beautiful comment, Rabbi Soloveitchik delineates the difference: “An encampment is created out of a desire for self-defense and thrives on fear. A Congregation is fashioned out of longing for the realization of an exalted moral idea and thrives on love.” People and nations often band together out of fear. But closeness that has roots in fear will dissolve when the threat passes. More than that, there is often a residual shame in caring for one another…

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5 Spiritual New Year’s Resolutions

The best resolutions are elastic—they cannot be broken with a single act. If you swear never to touch red meat, one burger ruins the resolution. If, on the other hand, you pledge to eat healthier food, each day you have a chance to fulfill the resolution anew. Below are five elastic spiritual resolutions that can carry you throughout the year. 1. Engage with people more than pixels. Looking at a phone is quick and undemanding. Texting is easier than talking—it gives you intimacy without danger. This year, resolve to spend more time looking into someone’s eyes when you communicate with…

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