Off the Pulpit


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Alone in the Desert

The God of Israel became real to the Israelites in the desert. A seemingly barren world gave birth to a people and a mission. To some however, the desert is not charged with meaning, but empty and frightening. Naturalist Edward Abbey from his book Desert Solitaire: “Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of the primal desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other…

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Why is it customary for a mourner to lead the prayer service? In his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier quotes Solomon Luria’s opinion that a mourner should lead because “the King of Kings prefers broken vessels.” This lovely formulation is based on a striking passage from the Midrash: “Rabbi Alexandri said: ‘If a person uses broken vessels, it is considered an embarrassment. But God seeks out broken vessels for His use, as it says, ‘God is the Healer of Shattered Hearts.’” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:2). That we are more whole when broken is the paradox embodied in the Kotzker’s famous phrase that…

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Blessings and Curses

On Yom Kippur, the people of Sharon, a region subject to earthquakes, pleaded with God that their houses not become their graves. One way to understand this prayer is that our blessings not become our curses. Wealth is a great blessing. When it brings with it ostentation, rapacious competition, empty acquisition, we have allowed a blessing to become a curse. Freedom is a blessing. When we allow that freedom to lead to the unmooring of our values and character, it has become a curse. Passion for the causes of the world is vital. When that passion for the causes outside…

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Behind the Window

Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the premier philosopher of the twentieth century, led a difficult and often tortured life. In his biography, The Duty of Genius, Ray Monk quotes Wittgenstein explaining to his disapproving sister why despite his fabulous talents, he decided to become a teacher in a rural school: “You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet.” The Baal…

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Which is true: • “Nothing ventured nothing gained” or “fools rush in where angels fear to tread?” • “He who hesitates is lost” or “look before you leap?” • “Out of sight out of mind” or “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? Two things, as Samuel Johnson said, imputed to the human heart may not both be logical, but they can both be true. Human beings embrace paradox, which is why faith is often paradoxical. Judaism understands the wisdom enunciated last century by Oscar Wilde, that a deep truth is anything the opposite of which is also a deep truth….

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Socrates and Abraham

The scholar of ancient Greek thought, F. Cornford, summarized Socrates claim to greatness as twofold. First, because of his discovery of the soul, and second, because Socrates fashioned a morality of spiritual aspiration, to take the place of the current morality of social restraint. Before him, the Sophists and others explained how to limit oneself, and live in harmony with what existed. Socrates, according to Cornford, reached far beyond that. As we read the Torah, we see that the biblical characters indeed embody both ideals — that of social restraint and spiritual aspiration. The laws of the Bible are intended…

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The Seldon of Jewish History

Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic “The Foundation Trilogy” is about a man named Seldon who, envisioning the coming apocalypse, creates a haven to build a great encyclopedia of human knowledge. This seemingly simple task hides a much grander scheme, and the underlying message is his abiding faith that knowledge coupled with wisdom can save us from the abyss. There was a Seldon in Jewish history. As the Talmud tells the story, while Jerusalem burned, Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai was smuggled out of the city in a coffin. There he entreated of the Roman emperor Vespasian to give him “Yavneh and…

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The Tower and the Temple

Why did the people of Babel build their tower to the sky? The prevailing interpretation is that they were afflicted with hubris, the sin of pride. But another interpretation is preserved in Jewish commentaries. The story of the Tower is preceded by Noah’s flood. Imagine how terrified the people of Babel must have been. They were the post-apocalyptic generation. Perhaps the sky would fall again. In this reading, the Tower of Babel arose not from arrogance but from fear. It was designed to be a pillar to hold up the sky. Perhaps with the tower holding aloft the heavens, the…

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In an age of polarization, it is useful to remember how often great spirits have avoided the bitterness that poisons our discourse. “With malice toward none with charity toward all.” Lincoln avoided the recriminations one might have expected in the wake of a savage civil war. The same majestic spirit was apparent in Nelson Mandela’s demeanor after his release: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” In the Torah, we read of Moshe’s self-possession in the…

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How to Feel Bad About Yourself

Is believing the best about yourself always a virtue? The greatest religious figures are often those most convinced of their inadequacies. A man once approached A.J. Heschel and said “I love my family, I pay my taxes, I keep a good job. What do I need to repent for? I am a pretty good person.” Heschel replied, “Good for you, but the same is not true of me. I am always thinking the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing. I need God, and I need to repent.” Somehow, I believe that the goodness of Heschel outshone…

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