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Posts by Rabbi David Wolpe

Loneliness


As the New Year approaches we are reminded again of the scourge of loneliness. It is the first thing that the Torah deplores: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are creatures of connection, needing one another to get along in this world. That does not make being with others frictionless or always easy. The philosopher Schopenhauer compared people to porcupines, who move together for warmth, yet as they come closer their quills stick one another so they move away, and feeling cold, only to come close together again. Many people will identify –…

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Beautiful Beams


When we see a beautiful building, we don’t see the girders that shape it underneath. They are not considered picturesque. When we see a beautiful person, we do not see the bones. The skeleton is not considered lovely. As Jean Kerr wrote, “People say that beauty is only skin deep. What do you want – an adorable pancreas?” Yet the scaffolding of life is essential. There is no outer beauty without the structure to support it. This is true in religious life as well. People may respond to the majesty of the prayers but think committee meetings and building maintenance…

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Traveling at Home


There is nothing like travel to remind us how often proximity makes us intolerant. In another country, when we see a custom that is different from our own, we think, ‘well they have different assumptions and ideas here.’ When we see that our fellow citizens differ from us, we rage against their idiocy, unable to imagine how they could not agree with our own views. The Rabbis had a wise principle: “The frequent takes precedence over the rare.” So a holiday that comes all of the time, like the Sabbath, takes precedence over holidays that come once a year. According…

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Why Don’t We Bless One Another?


At the end of Genesis and the end of the Torah, Jacob and Moses offer extended blessings. We take this in stride – after all, they are biblical titans, and obviously they have both the power and the disposition to bless. Why do we feel so shy then about blessing one another? It is not because we are inadequate. After all, when you bless someone you are a conduit, not a source. The blessing does not come from me, but through me. You need not be a perfect person (as if there were such a thing) to bless another person….

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Two Dreams, Two Miracles, One Meaning


Joseph has two dreams – one of sheaves and one of stars. The first is a dream of material and the second a dream of spirit. We read the Joseph story on Hanukkah, which tells of two miracles: the miracle of the military victory and the miracle of the oil. The first is a material miracle – as the al Hanissim prayer puts it, the strong were given into the hands of the weak. The second is a spiritual miracle. Judaism is a tradition of balance. We do not ask people to commit to lives of pure spiritual yearning, fasting,…

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A Thanksgiving Prayer


The first words I say in the morning, in accordance with the Jewish tradition, are Mode Ani, “I thank You.” I walk out of my house and am greeted by the dawn. I step from a house I didn’t build in clothes I did not sew into a day I did not create with a life I was given. Thank you. With each challenge and difficulty that arises in the day, I try to be mindful that things that seem unbearable now may later be important; I’ve lived long enough to remember how we treasure people and things in retrospect….

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More Than One Way to be a Slave


Pharaoh “intensified the labor” of the Israelites. The tyrant’s motivation was deeper than random cruelty. In ‘Mesillat Yesharim,’ Path of the Upright, his famed book on ethical conduct, Rabbi Moses Luzzato writes that this was a measure to circumvent the possibility of rebellion. The Israelites would just be too busy to think and plan. He goes on to say that the same principle applies in our own lives. Without the time to reflect on our souls, on our conduct, we are easily led astray and cannot break the bondage of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Who has not done…

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The Secret of Memory


A peculiar event marks the life of one of America’s greatest philosophers and writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was married only a year and a half when his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis. Thirteen months later, we have a cryptic entry in his journal: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” He never tells us what he learned by this, and throughout the journals that he devotedly kept through his life, the incident is not mentioned again. But Emerson did carry one lesson with him that may have been influenced by peering into his wife’s grave. He wrote, “The…

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The Secret of Memory


Renowned historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi once noted that the Jewish people were the first in history who saw memory as a religious obligation. In his aptly titled book Zakhor, “Remember,” he traced the ways in which Jews recorded and reconstructed the events of their history. The more we learn about memory the more we realize it is not a tape recorder; indeed we do not even use the same ‘storage systems’ for different kinds of memory. The way you recall breakfast is not the same as the way you recall a childhood incident, although it may seem the same. Scans…

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Recognizing God


How did Abraham first come to God? The Torah does not say, although the Rabbis offer stories to explain. One imagines that Abraham was like a man who spots a palace in flames. He cries out, “Is no one responsible for this palace?” From an upper window the owner peeks through to declare he is responsible. The palace has an owner. Similarly, Abraham, seeing the world in flames, cried out “Is no one responsible for this world?” God came to Abraham in response to his cry. The twist to this midrash is that the word for “in flames” is doleket….

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