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July


Two Strikes, You’re In!


Some people never tire of beating themselves up. It is a distressing sight – their self-blame is immediate, overwhelming, and destructive. Others, by contrast, never beat themselves up. Their sense of self-worth is invulnerable, and no matter how badly they may misstep or even hurt others, it does not tarnish the pristine shine of their self-regard. Obviously neither extreme is conducive to a healthy, balanced life. So I was struck (pun sort of intended) by the passage in the Amidah where we twice hit our chests in remorse. Now this makes sense, I thought — we are advised that a…

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George Washington and the Synagogue President


No country is perfect and no nation without crimes and flaws. Some few nations however, are defined by aspiration as well as achievements far greater than their shortcomings. America is founded on a great idea; Israel was founded on a great idea. Each struggles to realize the high possibilities that are part of its mission. Both are intertwined in history and in destiny. Many of the founders of the United States were Hebraists, and the first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing…

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June


Deliberately Accidental


According to the Torah, when a farmer harvested his field he was obligated to leave one corner unharvested, so that the poor could harvest it themselves and keep the produce. When gathering sheaves together, any sheaves that she forgot or stalks that were dropped are left for the poor as well. The last two laws – shikchah (forgetting a sheaf) and leket (dropping them) are curious because they are mitzvot that one cannot do deliberately. If you pretend to forget, you have not performed the mitzvah; if you drop it deliberately, you may still leave it for the poor, but…

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Cellphones In The Torah?


“You shall not light fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Ex. 35:3). On the basis of this verse many Jewish authorities forbid the use of electricity, which is a kind of fire. Others question that prohibition, but in our day the use of electricity on Shabbat has become more common because of cellphones. Even people who would normally refrain from turning on lights can’t always keep themselves from scrolling through texts or twitter. But I think the same verse can be used explicitly to outlaw cellphone use on Shabbat. Because according to the Sfat Emeth (R….

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Why Atheists Should Pray


In some ways arguing for God’s existence is a fruitless exercise. Though I have engaged in many such public debates with well known atheists, I’m not sure anyone has been convinced one way or another. I am convinced however, that inability to appreciate the peaks of religious experience is a true lack. Listen to the wise words of philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “I am moved by religious services… I think that those who do not understand what it is to be religious, do not understand what human beings live by. That is why dry atheists seem to me blind and deaf…

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The True Wisdom


We often complain there is too little wisdom in the world. Actually there is too much. We have vast compendia of advice, sage writings from people who have endured much and thought deeply, legacies from civilizations worldwide that have sustained generations. The problem is that even when we are willing to listen it is hard to know which bit of wisdom fits which situation. There is a wisdom to holding fast, but also to letting go. There is a wisdom to caution and to heedlessness. When Ecclesiastes wisely counsels us that there is a time for everything, a time to…

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May


The Brain, Buber, and Being


A decade ago neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist wrote a fascinating book, “The Master and the Emissary.” His thesis is that the different hemispheres of our asymmetric and divided brains perceive reality differently, and that increasingly over history, the left – detail oriented, more narrowly focused – has become dominant. Reading his work, I thought of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”: “However the history of the individual and that of the human race may diverge in other respects, they agree in this at least: both signify a progressive increase of the It-world.” Distancing ourselves from others and from the world, seeing a…

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Not Good Enough?


Torah heroes generally shrink from leadership. Moses pleads with God to send someone else. Isaiah fears that he has ‘unclean lips.’ Jeremiah must be forced by God to be a prophet. In an almost satiric version, Samuel three times thinks God’s voice is really the voice of Eli, the High Priest, calling him in the night. None of these great figures is falsely modest. Rather they are honest and deeply insightful. Each knows what it means to take on the burden of leadership and recognizes that they cannot do it lightly or thoughtlessly. They feel unequal to the responsibility of…

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What Is Holiness?


The Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh, which also means separate. In some sense the realm of the holy is the realm set apart – the Sabbath that is kadosh from the week, or the couple bound in kiddushin, the rites of marriage, sharing a unique intimacy. Yet holiness cannot be fully separate. For we are told God is kadosh and God is both above all and yet in all; and we too are told to be kadosh, to attain the state of both distance and closeness, separation and embrace. Holiness involves goodness – one cannot be holy without being…

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Jewish Narcissism


We remember Narcissus as a self loving fool who is drowned in a pool of his own reflection. We don’t always recall the fuller myth: that he rejected Eros, who in fury cursed him. The seer Tiresias predicted his fate – Narcissus would die if he came to know himself. Greek literature teaches the double edged nature of being deeply acquainted with one’s own character. Despite the ancient Delphic admonition to know oneself, self knowledge is not always attractive or easy. Goethe wrote, “Know myself? If I knew myself I would run away.” There are part of ourselves that are not easy…

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