Off the Pulpit


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Divided Creatures

Each of us faces two kinds of intertwined struggles: those with the world and those inside oneself. True, if you change yourself you are likely to act differently toward others, and if you act differently it will trigger changes in the self. Yet we still appreciate that these are somehow distinct. Meditation and prayer we understand as essentially internal. Feeding the hungry or taking part in political demonstrations, for example, we think of as mostly external. There is a large Jewish literature on practicing even if one does not feel the desire to do so, in the belief that action…

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Blessings and Bereavements

As a pulpit rabbi, I look out each High Holidays at a different congregation. The year before we chanted “who shall live and who shall die.” I see absences – people who were there the year before who are no longer there. Bereavements have left spaces in our community. The congregation is also different because I have learned about many of my congregants in the interim. Some have married or had children; others divorced or suffered some sort of personal setback or tragedy. Some have come to speak to me and confided something about their lives or the lives of…

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Praying For Fear

On Rosh Hashana we repeat U’vchein ten Pachdecha which is literally – grant your fear. Since fear seems such a negative concept, why is this phrase so central to the prayers? Fear can be a more powerful motivator than love. You may love others, but a police car behind you will be more effective in getting you to drive safely than the love of the driver in front of you. And while it is true that fear sometimes prevents us from doing what we might, it is also true that a bit more fear might help prevent us from doing…

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The Music Inside Us

In this month of Elul before Rosh Hashana we blow the shofar each morning after the minyan. Several years ago I used to listen to the shofar masterfully blown by Rabbi Mark Fasman, who was also a concert trumpet player. I once asked him why he chose the trumpet and he gave a beautiful answer: “I wanted to play an instrument where the music came from inside me.” What Rabbi Fasman said reminds us of the shofar’s lesson. We use various kinds of tools and instruments in the world, but the music must come from inside of us. In our…

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A Deep Teaching

A beautiful question-and-answer in the name of the Gerer Rebbe: When strangers come to visit Abraham (Genesis chapter 18), e Torah tells us that Abraham, who was in God’s presence, rushes out to visit the strangers. The Talmud comments on this that we learn it is more important to greet strangers than to bask in the Divine presence. The Rebbe asked – we learn this lesson from Abraham, but how did Abraham know? How did he have the chutzpah, the audacity, to walk away from God to greet the strangers? His answer: It is actually because Abraham was in God’s presence that…

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Be a Turtle

Almost every week public figures are attacked or embarrassed for what they have put on social media. We are reminded of the perils of ease – make your thoughts too quickly public and you are likely to regret it. We have forgotten the old advice of slowly counting to ten, of writing something and then revisiting it before you publish. There are merits to meeting resistance. Easy lends itself to excess. Forage for food and you probably won’t overeat. Open the refrigerator full of food and you probably will. If you have to test your argument, think about it, practice…

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Serious or Funny?

“Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.” So wrote G.K. Chesterton, reminding us that some of the most penetrating observations about life are made through humor. You do not have to be somber to be serious. Jewish humor has not only enabled an often oppressed people to cope with the world, but taught a great deal about that world. When Henny Youngman tells us that Jews don’t drink because it interferes with their suffering,…

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How to Live

I once wrote about our baby proofer. His wisdom has grown even greater over the years. After leaving the house, ensuring that no prying baby hands could open dangerous drawers, climb perilous steps or fall on sharp corners, he turned to me and said — “Now remember, you can’t take your eyes off of her for a second!” In a larger sense what that wise safety maven meant is that the world can be made safer, but not safe. Having lived through both a brain tumor and lymphoma, both AFTER I began eating a vegetarian diet, I often think bemusedly…

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Do We Need Experts?

In the years when I played tournament chess I would wander over to the boards of the top players and was often surprised to spectators with lesser skills (like myself) make whispered pronouncements about the play of the masters. I realized then that level of skill and level of confidence are two entirely different things. In modern society we are often called upon to make judgments about things in science, technology, politics, economics — for which we have little training and less knowledge. Yet it does not seem to diminish, for many, the confidence with which they pronounce. Judaism is…

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All of Israel

The book of Deuteronomy begins by telling us that Moses spoke these words “to all of Israel.” As the Vilna Gaon points out, it is obvious they were spoken to all of Israel, but the phrase is included because there are shades of meaning. The words of Torah are simple and available to all. The phrase “all of Israel” also means that they are infinitely deep, and each person can comprehend them according to that individual’s capacity. “All of Israel” also implies an eternity. It was not only spoken to the Israelites standing before Moses that day, but to all Israel for all…

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