Off the Pulpit


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Invisible Footsteps

Sometimes we know things not by their presence but by their effects. In building the periodic table, Medeleyev filled in gaps based on what he had already figured out. Certain elements, though he had not actually found them, had to be there given what he had already discovered. Similarly, for early astronomers, the orbit of Uranus could only be made consistent by assuming the existence of another planet, which was not spotted until much later. A modern example is the proghorn antelope, the fastest runner in North America. It runs much too fast for any possible predator, easily outrunning coyotes…

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White Lies

Are you allowed to lie? The Bible tells us to “stay far from falsehood” (Ex. 23:7). But the Talmud records an argument between the school of Hillel and Shammai concerning whether one should praise a bride as beautiful if she is, well, less than beautiful. The school of Shammai says no, and that of Hillel says yes, but the Hillelites try to escape the contradiction by insisting that on her wedding day, every bride is beautiful. In the Torah, God misquotes Sarah’s words to Abraham, tactfully leaving out Sarah’s claim that her husband is too old to have a child…

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Turning Away

On either side of the ark in the Temple were two keruvim, delicately carved golden angels. In the book of Exodus (25:20), we are told that they are to face each other. In the book of 2 Chronicles (3:13), it is recorded that they faced away from each other. No gesture is more powerful than turning toward or turning away. There are moments in our lives when we face another and moments when we turn aside. The keruvim symbolized periods of intimacy with God and periods of distance. At the heart of the Temple was a reminder that closeness alternates…

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At Home in Torah

Why does the Torah begin with a bet? The question receives many answers in Jewish tradition. One common answer is that since bet is the second letter, it shows there is no true beginning to study; it is an everlasting enterprise. Elie Wiesel answers it this way: “Bet is a house [both because of its shape and because it begins the word Bayit, home]… The Book of Books is a shelter, a dwelling place. A place in which men and women laugh and weep, read and write, work and sleep. A place in which people love one another before they…

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Your Own Two Feet

“For God brought about the victory. Once Beowulf had struggled to his feet, the holy and omniscient ruler of the sky easily settled the issue in favor of the right.” What is striking about those lines from the renowned medieval poem Beowulf is how they embody the idea that God helps Beowulf once the warrior struggles to his feet. Beowulf must initiate his own salvation. God responds to human self-assertion. That same idea is beautifully expressed one thousand years before in God’s message to the prophet Ezekiel. When in the beginning of the book (2:1) Ezekiel begins to prophecy, God…

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Hatred’s Door

Years ago on a trip to Paris with my then 16-year-old daughter, we visited a score of museums: The Louvre, of course, the magnificent Quai Branly, the Rodin museum, the Pompidou center, and the Hugo house. Each had a small if cursory security check. Then we sought out the small, very fine Jewish museum in the Marais. Here, we passed through a double glass door that did not allow you to continue to the front until the back had closed. The saddest part was my daughter’s insouciance. “Did you notice the security?” I asked. She nodded, “Dad, it’s the Jewish…

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Building a Life

“What should I do with my life?” The question pursues us to the very end of our days. Whether we are fulfilling our destiny in this world is a constant challenge and provocation. Some believe each of us has a fixed, preset destiny and life is a search; others believe our purpose is created and life is a shaping. Judaism offers both models. There are moments and missions that require only we heed the voice: In ancient times, Abraham was chosen and resolute. In modern times, many visionaries felt that they had only to pay attention and their journey was…

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What Would You Give?

The first mention of love in the Torah occurs when God tells Abraham to offer up Isaac, “whom you love.” (Gen. ch. 22) Why should the Torah choose this improbable moment to mention love for the first time? For a moment let us set aside all the other questions involved in the very difficult story to ponder why love is introduced here. All love has an element of sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban, comes from the root “to draw close.” When you sacrifice for another you draw close to them. One of the reasons we so treasure our…

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To Hold with Open Arms

When the renowned Rabbi Milton Steinberg recovered following his heart attack, he walked out into the bright midday sun. He thought, “How precious – how careless.” Life is so precious, and we are so careless with it. How can we be so heedless when we know that everything must end? Perhaps we fear that if we care too much, the losses of life will be unbearable. How should we live, knowing everything can vanish in an instant? This is how Steinberg concludes in words written more than half a century ago: “And only with God can we ease the intolerable…

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Passover and Real Freedom

Ask most schoolchildren the meaning of Passover and they will say “freedom” or perhaps, “freedom from slavery.” They aren’t wrong, but the answer is incomplete in a very important way. The famous Passover phrase, “let my people go,” is abbreviated. The full sentence is, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” The historian of Ideas, Isaiah Berlin, made a famous distinction between being “liberated from” and being “liberated to.” To be liberated from oppression is the beginning of freedom, not its end or aim. True freedom is abundance of opportunity, not absence of obligation. A man in a…

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