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Posts by Rabbi David Wolpe

Hide And Seek


Many of the high points of the Jewish tradition depend upon the end of concealment. In the Torah, God was long hidden from humanity until Abraham managed to see the world as filled with God’s presence. At Sinai, the notion of ‘revelation’ presupposes that before, there was hiddenness. The approaching holiday of sukkah reminds us of this shadow side of Jewish understanding. The schach on the roof of the sukkah deliberately casts shadows on the floor, both revealing and concealing. The holiday follows on the heels of Yom Kippur, the time when we are supposed to bare our souls, seeking…

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God’s Prayer – And Ours


At the beginning of the Talmud, in tractate Berachot, there is a curious question — What is God’s prayer? The Rabbis answer that God prays, “May My mercy overcome My anger.” When our tradition speaks of God, it is also teaching something about humanity. For this is a version of our Yom Kippur prayer. No individual is composed entirely of mercy, or of kindness, or of anger, or of impatience. Experience has taught us that we cannot eradicate deep parts of ourselves and make them vanish as if they never existed. What we can do is encourage other parts until…

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Ignorance and Wisdom


On Rosh Hashanah, we read verses of sovereignty, memory and music – the shofar blast. Each is a pastiche of biblical verses that teaches lessons of psychology and soul. Sovereignty is not only about God but about us. By emphasizing God’s majesty it reminds us that each human being is frail and foolish, but still loved and unique. And it recalls us to the reality that there are powerful ethical expectations for people in this world. We will fall short of course, but we are obligated to keep trying. The verses of memory speak to the fear of being forgotten….

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Ignorance and Wisdom


In 1913, British novelist E.C. Bentley wrote a mystery called “Trent’s Last Case.” It became a classic not only for the sparkling writing, but because the detective observes meticulously, reasons brilliantly – and comes to the exact wrong conclusion. It is a marvelous lesson in intellectual humility. As recently as 2002, scientists asked a large number of people how such everyday things as zippers, piano keys and bicycles actually work. People were robustly confident that they knew – and then proved abysmally ignorant. We know far less about the world than we assume, and our reasoning is often flawed. All…

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Courts of Love


In medieval England and France, there were courts of love. They legislated on questions regarding love, passed sentence on lovers who were in the wrong, and generally tried to establish a system of jurisprudence to keep love disputes from the regular courts. Charles the IV established his court on Valentine’s Day of 1400 by having a panel of women select the judges based on oral recitation or examples of poetry; others were composed of married women or widows themselves. One man who renounced his vows to a lady only to marry a woman of ‘higher station’ had to pay his…

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The Emotions of Elul


This week began the month of Elul, a time of introspection and self-appraisal. These are not entirely the same tasks. Introspection helps us understand our own motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Self-appraisal is concerned with our actions and how they affect other people. These are naturally intertwined, since our actions spring from within. Yet it is remarkable how often what we do is not taken as intended. We say things that are misunderstood, gestures of tenderness that seem callous, help experienced as interference, restraint interpreted as indifference. We need to explore why we do unkind things, and also why we sometimes…

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Wide As The World


Many years ago at Hebrew University I studied with the renowned Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid. During a bus ride we took together, he talked about my plans of becoming a Rabbi and explained why the challenge to Judaism was different in the modern world. Prof. Schweid told me that traditionally, Torah had to measure itself against a single tradition or school of thought: it was the Torah versus Aristotle, or Islam, or Christianity. But today the Torah must contend with a large variety of disparate disciplines: astronomy, sociology, biology, psychology, archeology, history, linguistics, physics and on and on. As a…

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Excellence, Not Perfection


As a child I had the disorienting experience of visiting other children’s homes and discovering that their families sometimes did things better than my own. Because I loved my own family and thought them ideal, I didn’t know what to do with this information. Eventually I came to recognize that something or someone you love can be excellent without being perfect. As I grew I came to this realization about my country. The United States is unique. Ours is a remarkable and blessed land. Yet I have studied history and know that we have also done some disreputable and even…

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Only God, My Dear


“My beloved is radiant… the winter is passed.” So does the Song of Songs, Judaism’s preeminent poem of passion, speak about the warmth and glow of the one who is loved. Such similes endure throughout the ages. Shakespeare asks if he shall compare his love to a summer’s day. Leonard Cohen asks, “With Annie gone, whose eyes to compare with the morning sun?” Pointing to the wonders of nature is for religion a sacred as well as a poetic duty. God has given us a treasure house of metaphor to explore our feelings, to understand how to love and to praise. The human…

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Peace Or Discontent?


There are powerful competing ideologies of religious meaning, one promoting acceptance and the other, discontent. Are we supposed to accept the world, be at peace with its foibles and tragedies, or are we to fight always against the world, to seek to make it better and not rest easy with its shortcomings? In 1946 Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote a bestseller called “Peace of Mind” in which he argued for balance and calm as religious objectives. In contrast two years before in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that “Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and…

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