Off the Pulpit


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Lessons Of The Marketplace

The Torah teaches in rapid succession that if you see someone’s sheep or ox astray, you should return it. If you see someone trying to raise their fallen ox, you should help them. Don’t take the eggs of a bird in front of its mother. And when you build a house, put a railing on the roof so no one falls (Deut. Ch. 22).  TIn other words, empathy. Imagine how your neighbor feels having lost his sheep. Or how he feels trying to raise an ox by himself. Or how a mother bird might feel watching her young taken. Or…

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Safari Blessing

During the Limmud South Africa conference I had a chance to go on a two day safari. The experience of seeing rhinos and elephants and lions and zebras outside of a zoo is exhilarating. But it is also a religious obligation. The Jerusalem Talmud reminds us that we will be called to account for the pleasure we might have enjoyed but did not. Presumably the reasoning is that God has given us gifts and it is an expression of gratitude to enjoy them. The world is filled with magnificent and varied creatures; to see them and admire their grace is…

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A Jewel Of Elul

In his youth the great scholar Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin was an indifferent student who decided to abandon his studies and go to a trade school. On the night he told his parents of his decision, the future Rabbi had a dream. He saw an angel holding a stack of beautiful books. “Whose books are those?” he asked. “They are yours,” answered the angel, “if you have the courage to write them.” There is no end to beginning. Rabbi Akiba did not start to learn until he was 40, yet he became the most renowned of all the talmudic sages….

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The Same, But Different

A lot depends on our similarities. Unless we worked the same way, all designs would fail, medicine be ineffective, and human society become impossible. Yet we also affirm that each individual is unique. No two people look, think or act exactly alike. Both human sameness difference are profoundly true. The Rabbis compared faces to minted coins. A king of flesh and blood, they said, stamps coins and they all look alike. The Divine stamps us and each is different. We are all still faces, but none is a copy. Part of the wisdom of living is to keep each message…

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We are all in favor of kindness, unity and accord. But let us pause for a moment to praise gruffness, disunity and argument.  Mordecai Kaplan put it this way: “Who would want the prophets to have joined Dale Carnegie’s course in ‘How to win Friends?’” Kaplan’s point is that the prophet’s had to be contrary, difficult and at times antagonistic. They would have made poor diplomats and, truth to tell, if they were Rabbis the congregation would not have renewed their contracts. Yet the prophetic message had to be delivered in a thunderous voice to arouse the people. There are…

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Throw That In The House!

Growing up in my parent’s home, there was only one thing that was permitted to be thrown inside the house — challah.  Each Friday night after the blessing on the bread, my father would break up parts of the challah and throw it around the table. He began with my mother, who became very adept at snagging her piece. Some memorable catches were executed, as well as some incomprehensible misses. But by that simple gesture we began each Shabbat meal in an atmosphere of joy. Religious ritual is often solemn. Solemnity has its place. Butsimcha shel mitzvah — the sheer exhilaration…

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A Moment of Mourning

On Tisha b’Av, we are reminded of the destruction of the Temple and other tragedies in Jewish history. Ritual is both an aid to memory and an insistence that our sorrow be within limits.  Shiva prescribes that the mourner must stay home for seven days, but only for those days. The walk around the block after shiva is a return to the world. The meal after the funeral begins this process; limitations on mourning are not suggestions. You are not permitted to say Kaddish after the designated time. Tisha b’Av is a fast day, but afterwards you are not to…

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Your Neighbor’s Fire

The Roman poet Horace wrote, “it is your affair when your neighbor’s house in on fire.” For two kinds of people, it is of concern for two types of reasons.  Some worry about the neighbor’s house being on fire solely because theirs might catch fire. Such people judge every social event in terms of how it might affect them. How will this policy touch upon my taxes, my school system, or my health care? Such a view is not wrong, but it is limited. The second is the one who is also concerned because someone else is suffering. This is…

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Shaped By The Deed

Judaism is often called a tradition of deed, not of creed. It is certainly true that Judaism emphasizes one’s actions. The Torah assumes that the heart will always be divided and no one can erase the negative thoughts or bad intentions that accompany us throughout our lives. We show our nobility not by being consistently pure in thought, but by choosing to act in accord with our higher ideals. Action helps shape character. Habit is the means by which we bind ourselves. Even things unimaginable at one point in life can become habits later on: changes in exercise or diet…

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Stranger, Sibling, Self

Jacob fools his father and steals his brother’s birthright. Esau swears to kill him. Decades pass. Jacob hears that Esau is coming with 400 men. Yet when they meet, instead of vengeance, they fall on each other’s necks and weep. Why?   My father pointed out to me many years ago that in the ancient world there were few if any mirrors. People did not see their own faces, except perhaps distorted in a pool of water. Suddenly both Jacob and Esau, who were twins, although not identical, see one another. What must they have felt? I imagine that after…

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The Best Among Us

In Jerusalem at the Sami Rohr book prize ceremony, the winners summarized what they had learned in writing the book. Yehuda Mirsky, author of a beautiful biography of Rav Kook, said movingly: “I was just astonished that such a person could exist. Someone at once so deep and so good.”   His comment reminded me of the statement of famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger in his journals, that he didn’t believe in God but he believed in the Tzaddik, the righteous person. Yet a truly righteous person is a path to God; in our tradition God is manifested less in miracles and…

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Learning To Listen

In the Talmud we are told that Rav Eliezer ben Hyrcanos never taught anything that he had not heard from his teacher. Then in Avoth D’Rabbi Nathan we are told that “Rav Eliezer taught things that no ear had ever heard.” The two texts seem to contradict each other; so which is true? Did Rav Eliezer only repeat what he heard or did he innovate new teachings?  The answer comes from Rav Kook. He wrote that Rav Eliezer in fact only taught what he had heard from his teacher, but he listened so carefully that he heard things no one…

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The Tongue Set Free?

The most frequently cited sins in Jewish tradition are sins of speech. Some are direct, such as gossiping or slander. Others are indirect, such as embarrassing someone in public, which is usually a consequence of saying something callous or unkind. As a result, shemirat halashon, guarding one’s tongue, is a powerful value in Judaism. In part this is because we recognize the potency of words. If I tell you something discreditable about another person, even if it is later disproved, I cannot force you to forget and the faint whiff of scandal sticks to their reputation, even if wholly undeserved….

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Without an Appendix

The great chess master Savielly Tartakower used to say that the winner of a game was the one who had made the next to last mistake. Note he did not say the one who makes the most brilliant moves. Tartakower knew that brilliancy depends on error.  The biographies of successful people remind us of the prevalence of failure. Twelve publishers rejected the Harry Potter novels although they turned out to be among the best-selling books of all time. Steve Jobs may be remembered as legendarily successful but he was kicked out of Apple. While standing for election in 1922, Winston…

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Shaped By Wilderness

The three major Chagim, holidays, of the Jewish year — Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot — all commemorate deeds that took place in the wilderness. They have agricultural significance as well, tying them to the land, but their origin reminds us that we were shaped by the desert.    The Rabbis say one must make oneself as open as the desert to receive Torah. A cramped and walled-in spirit cannot learn the way one should. Best for Torah study is an expansive and questioning mind. In the wilderness one sees not the products of human beings but the vast star studded sky…

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What I Learned From the Evil Woman Next Door

When I was a child we lived next door to a very evil woman. At least, that’s what my brothers and I believed. We knew she was evil because when a ball we were playing with sailed over the fence into her yard, she always refused to return it. She was apparently upset that balls from the neighbor’s kids kept landing, splat, right in the middle of her carefully cultivated garden.  What my brothers and I did not say is, “Here is a probably nice enough woman who is particularly sensitive about her garden.” In other words, we were kids,…

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Wanting What You Want

The mind does not obey itself. My arm will rise if I ‘tell’ it to, but I cannot want what I think I should want. Shelves of self-help books promise to make us desire less junk food, exercise more, release ourselves from obsessive love for the wrong person, renew our affection for the ‘right’ person. But still, we cannot seem to want what we want to want.  This problem is as old as humanity. When the Psalmist asks God to direct his heart, he is expressing the same frustration: I know I should want good things, so why do I…

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The Mystery of Meaning

In the Jewish tradition a desecration of God’s name is called a “Hillul Hashem.” R. Chaim of Volozhin teaches that ‘Hillul’ comes from the word ‘Hallal’ meaning empty or void. The greatest desecration of God’s name is to believe the world is meaningless, without purpose.  Each morning in the service we say that the advantage of the human being over the beast is nothing, “ki hakol havel” — for all is emptiness. The prayer echoes Ecclesiastes, with its refrain that in the face of death all can be seen as empty or vain. But following a suggestion from Rabbi Simon…

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Worlds of Childhood

One of childhood’s great pleasures is to populate the world with imagination. It does not require elaborate equipment to engage a child. As the Italian poet Leopardi said, “children find everything in nothing; men find nothing in everything.”  Increasingly however, we are putting adult toys in children’s hands. Instead of filling the world with their own images they are presented with characters on screens, entertainment made by adults to hypnotize the attention of children. In place of a quiet and waiting world to be filled with the genius of young fantasy, there is a busy, buzzing, multicolor display ready to…

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The Valley of the Shadow

After the death of Aaron’s sons, God instructs Aaron on various rituals, including the atonement ritual on behalf of the people. There are three important lessons about grief in this juxtaposition.  You must return to the world. The Seudat Ha’avarah, the meal of passage, that follows shivah, is intended to begin the reclamation of the mourner. In the words of the 23rd Psalm, wewalk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not stay there. Doing something for others can help you both forget your own trouble and remember that grief is universal. Aaron was instructed on atonement for…

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Make ‘Em Laugh

Humor is the balancing pole of the tightrope of life, and Jews have always used humor to remain upright. So for example, the Talmud teaches that if a fledgling bird is found fifty cubits within a man’s property, it belongs to the owner of the property. If it is outside fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. A reasonable law, surely.  Along comes Rabbi Jeremiah and asks a question that actually got him thrown out of the academy: “What if one foot is within fifty cubits and one foot is outside fifty?” I can just imagine the…

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On Fire

“So Moses said, ‘I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.’ When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’”   Our Rabbis teach that Moses was distinguished by being the first who noticed the bush on fire but not turning to ashes. Only when God saw Moses turn aside does God call out. For some the burning bush is a metaphor of faith, that we should be on fire but not consumed. It also reminds us…

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Pour Out Your Wrath

After drinking the third cup of wine at the Seder, we open the door for Elijah and speak harsh words, asking God to pour out wrath on those who have devastated Jacob and laid waste to his dwellings.  Some are uncomfortable with these verses. Yet they are important for at least two distinct reasons.  First, we owe a legacy of anger to the past. The Jews who suffered for generations deserve our indignation for everything they endured. Our own good fortune does not cancel their anguish, and their right to anger that we express on their behalf. Out of all…

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All In One Meal

You can find almost every important Jewish value in one ceremony, the Passover Seder:  1. The story — The story of our people, biblical, rabbinic and beyond, retold through the generations, always with new interpretations.  2. Food — When the prophet Elijah is stranded in the wilderness and an angel comes to comfort, what does the angel say? “Eat something!” (I Kings, 19:5). No Jew without food. 3. Children — The Seder is taken from the past and points toward the future. It is a clebration with children always in mind, from the opening words to the closing song.  4….

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Found in Translation

Ours is the age of translation. There are more Jewish texts available in English than in any language at any time in history. Not only are Hebrew and Aramaic texts translated, but also works in Yiddish, Ladino, German, French, and the countless other languages Jews have spoken throughout the centuries.  From beginning we were a polyglot people. It is part of the condition of exile. Moses was raised speaking Egyptian, in ancient times the Torah was rendered into Aramaic and Greek, and some words in old French are known because the medieval commentator Rashi uses them to illuminate phrases in…

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No More Miracles

All of the Torah points to arriving in the land of Israel. How is that grand arrival announced? Right before the conquest of Jericho, in Joshua, (5:11,12) we read: “On that day when they ate the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna.”  That is the grand declaration. No fanfare. You are in the land because food no longer drops from the sky. You know you’ve arrived when the miracle is over. Of course there are other miracles to follow in the Tanach. Nonetheless the message endures: once you inherit the land of Israel…

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Measuring A Life

A little over a year ago my daughter told me how my Apple iPhone counts my steps each day  I had lived in blissful ignorance of this invention. Now I check my steps, wonder whether I should have more steps, worry on Shabbat (when I do not carry my phone) how many steps I am ‘missing” and generally have found an entirely new field to uselessly obsess over.  We measure everything about our lives these days — not only calories but our cholesterol, our heart rates, our income; we are subjected to an endless stream of poll numbers and surveys…

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Plus Ultra

All discovery creates new senses of possibility. The motto on the crest of Ferdinand and Isabella had been ne plus ultra — no more beyond. After Columbus discovered America, the ne was removed. Now the crest read: beyond this, more.   When we discover a sense of God in our lives, a new dimension is opened up for us. Before there was a limit on reality, now it soars beyond anything we had imagined. Where there were walls, there is an intimation of sky.  For Judaism the sacred is a realm that both permeates the everyday and extends far beyond…

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Absent Presences

In Torah class we are studying the Song of Songs. Verse 3:1 reads: “Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love. I sought but found him not.” Sometimes we feel another most keenly through absence.  The French philosopher Sartre spoke about the absence of God using the analogy of waiting for someone in a café. As you fix on the door, waiting for your friend to come, you are more focused on her nonappearance than on the presence of all the other people who actually walk in the door. Similarly, said Sartre, God in absence sometimes feels…

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Yes, You Do Judge People

How often do I hear people praised for not judging others? I know the point — such people are not harsh, they are not unkind, they do not judge character by reckoning irrelevancies. But there is no merit in not judging; rather there is great merit in judging fairly and kindly. “We must be courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light.” So wrote Emerson. We all judge: this person is more worth spending time with than that one. This individual is more skilled, more humorous,…

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An Ancient Lifeline

In Judaism, learning is part of piety. While the ideal of the simple righteous person exists in Judaism, far more common is the person whose reverence flows from erudition. A Talmid Chacham, a learned individual, is also assumed to be a good person. Of course that is not always the case, but in Judaism the belief has long been that the more you know, the better you will be. Ancient historian Arnaldo Momilgiano observes: “In Athens and Rome thinking about religion usually made people less religious, among Jews the more you thought about religion the more religious you became.” Study…

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Wake The Spirit

If you serve God in the same fashion as you did yesterday it is regression, taught the Hasidic master, the ‘Yehudi’ (Jacob Isaac ben Asher). “For a person is always in the aspect of becoming, and not standing.” Much of life is about mastery of routine. We learn from the time we are young how to accomplish certain tasks without thought. The danger is that routine takes over our spiritual life as it takes over the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the route we take to work. Remaining alive inside is to be an ever growing soul;…

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God Is Not Your Business Partner

The first chapter in the bible in which God’s name does not appear is the 23rd chapter of Genesis. The chapter recounts the negotiations that Abraham strikes with Ephron to buy Me’arat haMachpela, the land on which Sarah and Abraham and their descendents will be buried. This is the first parcel of land that a Jew purchases in Israel. Perhaps the Torah is offering a subtle lesson. Why is God’s name not mentioned? When it comes to commerce, land and politics, people invoke God, usually to justify whatever position they would have taken anyway, but the Torah is more honest….

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Fear, Love and Sacrifice

Our sages speak of both love of God and fear of God. Fear is more akin to awe. Think of the way people respond in a movie when they first see Godzilla or an alien: they are paralyzed for a moment with amazement that such a thing exists. Similarly, we should have a sense of awe, wonderment tinged by being overwhelmed, at the reality of God’s presence. But of course equally present is the love that makes awe bearable. We are not only subjects of God’s love, but God’s eternal love — ahavath olam — as our prayers teach us….

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You Can Take it With You

As the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt, Moses remembers the promise to carry Joseph’s bones to the land of Israel (Ex. 13:9). The Rabbis note Joseph’s original double phrasing to his family: “Hashbeah Hishbiah” — ‘you shall surely promise’ — because the promise is to be carried down through the generations. A commitment can be taken with you, from one age to the next, with a sense of continuity and sanctity. Indeed the oath sworn to Joseph does not end there. For Moses, who took upon himself the fulfillment of the task, would never have the privilege of entering the…

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Scars of a Lion

“You shall arise as a lion each morning to do the will of your Creator.” That stirring sentence opens the Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish code of law. It reminds us that at the heart of the Jewish tradition is the conviction that there are things worth fighting for. In a more peaceful age, it is easy to dismiss the necessity of fighting. Acceptance has a long and noble tradition, but unwise appeasement has a long and ignoble one. Everybody who cherishes some value in this world has to be willing to bear the consequence of defending that value, or it…

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The word describing the basket in which Moses is placed as an infant is “tevah,” the same word used to describe Noah’s ark. Many commentators draw the parallel between the man who saved the world and the man who saved the Jewish people. But who made the ‘tevah’? In Noah’s case, he made it at God’s direction to save himself. But in Moses’ case, it was made by his mother at her own initiative. She fashioned a sort of ark, not to save herself, but to save her child. Moses is then rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. Perhaps the story is…

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The sages of our tradition were very wary of anger. Rabbah, son of R. Huna, said: “When one loses his temper, even the Divine Presence is unimportant in his eyes” [Nedarim 22b]. While not denying the possibility that righteous anger can exist, repeatedly the Rabbis warn against anger, which is like a boiling pot that overspills and scalds everyone nearby.  Anger exemplifies the wisdom of what Emerson teaches: “Our moods don’t believe each other.” We say things, and often do things, in anger that we would never do in calmer moments. Yet words spoken in anger cannot be recalled; forgiven perhaps, but rarely forgotten. Keeping a leash on our fury is…

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