Off the Pulpit


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The First Mitzvah and the Last

In Maimonides’ listing of the 613 commandments, the first is believing in God. The last is a king not amassing great personal wealth. In a certain way, those two commandments, one positive and one negative, are intimately related to one another. Believing in God entails believing that one has limits. Much of Judaism reinforces this idea. When reciting the Amidah according to Jewish law, the regular worshipper bows at the beginning and the end of the first and last blessing. A High Priest bows at the beginning and the end of each blessing. A King must bow throughout the entire…

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The Perils of Reentry

Mitzrayim in Hebrew means narrow. We think of narrowness as a purely negative trait. Yet there are times when tighter is better: when we are held for example. “Snug” is another word for narrow – because sometimes to be confined is to feel safe and to be released is to feel scared. The Israelites as they left the desert were scared. They were dizzy with freedom. Why did they build the golden calf? Because as slaves they were used to being told what to do and having an authoritative voice above them giving them direction. They craved narrowness. “Escape from…

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No — With the Rope Around Their Necks

In April of 1903 the first pogrom broke out in Kishinev, shocking the Jewish world and causing death and destruction. Increasingly it seemed to observers that Russian Jewry was in danger. As a second pogrom in 1905 was to prove, they were tragically correct. A few weeks after the first pogrom was the sixth Zionist Congress. There the ‘Uganda plan’ was proposed, the idea that Jews could be saved immediately by taking land in East Africa that was a British Protectorate and creating a Jewish state. Herzl among many other seriously entertained this plan since it would mean salvation from…

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A Friend I Never Knew

Let me tell you about a friend I never knew. He was born in Jerusalem in 1906 and died in 1972. His name was Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen. His father was a renowned kabbalist who led services at the Western Wall for some 50 years. Rabbi Mordecai Hacohen worked through the Maḥzike Hadas network of institutions in Jerusalem to represent Judaism to Israel’s secular population, especially in the kibbutzim. After his death, a research institute called Yad Ramah was established to bring his works to light. Rabbi M. Hacohen wrote many books and left a literary legacy. So why do I,…

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Stand On Your Feet

In our daily and sabbath prayers we do bow, but nonetheless stand up straight when saying God’s name. In reciting the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, the Shuchan Aruch instructs us not to lean on anything, but to stand before God (O.H. 94:8). Bowing is a posture of submission and Judaism certainly instructs human beings to submit to God’s will. But submission does not erase individuality or even an element of defiance. There is a long tradition of Jews arguing with God, questioning God, placing their fallible, mortal judgment next to God’s own decrees. It began with Abraham…

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Have You Read All These Books?

When people come into my office and see the room full of books, they will often ask, “Have you read all these books?” Well, absent the encyclopedias and dictionaries, the answer is most of them. But I am continually giving books away and ordering new ones, so every room of books I have (and I have too many) is filled with aspirational books – books I plan to read someday. And that is my answer when someone asks me what to read on Judaism. Read whatever book will lead you to more books. The great critic Randall Jarrell advised “read…

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Why We Have The Megillah

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls every book of the Hebrew bible is represented except the book of Esther. Allusions are made to phrases from Esther so the book was known in Qumran, but not considered sacred and therefore not preserved. Some of the Christian church, particularly in the East, also omitted Esther from the canon of sacred books in the early centuries. Why this uncertain status? We cannot know for sure, although the absence of God’s name, or perhaps the rejection of Purim as a holiday may have been a reason. Yet the Rabbis found God in the Megillah, or…

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Animal Rights and Wrongs

Can you spot the difference in these two injunctions? Ex 23:4. “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering you must take it back to him.” Ex. 23:5. “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and wish to refrain from helping him, you must nonetheless raise it with him.” In the first instance, you come across the animal of the person you hate. You must nonetheless return it, because you are otherwise colluding in depriving another person of what belongs to him. But in the second instance, you do not encounter the animal –…

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Hard Hearts

The Torah tells us ‘Do not harden your heart (Deut 15:7).’ The verse is speaking particularly about the poor, who turn to you for help. Hard-heartedness is a general affliction as kindness is a general attribute. Every human being is at times beleaguered, no matter their social status. In our sadly shrill society, when discourse operates by insult as often as by argument, there is a constant turning away from the humanity of the other. In a beautiful passage, G.K. Chesterton says of Charles Dickens: “Dickens did not dislike this or that argument for oppression; he disliked oppression. He disliked…

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Judaism Works!

The world of work is changing and especially given the pandemic, many people face an uncertain future. Judaism seems a cerebral tradition, and the knowledge economy well suited to a bookish people. Yet the Talmudic Rabbis had jobs involving their hands and our tradition has a lot to say about all types of labor. In this uneasy age, when menial jobs are newly understood as essential work, it is worth reminding ourselves of Judaism’s understanding of work. “Six days shall you work,” says the commandment concerning the Shabbat. Work is as essential to human dignity as resting from work. Human…

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