Off the Pulpit


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Why Should Secular Jews Give To Jewish Causes?

Recently I was asked what I would say to a secular Jew who wondered why he should donate to Jewish causes. This was my answer:If you travel throughout the United States, indeed throughout the world, you will see that Jews have given vast sums to cultivate the arts, sciences, medical research and so forth. The amount given is wildly disproportionate to our very small numbers. Why? Because centuries of Jewish teaching have implanted in our spiritual DNA the necessity of supporting such causes. Now you – the secular Jew – may not believe in the teachings that shaped you. Nonetheless,…

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Three Extraordinary Lives: Kirk Douglas, Abe Zarem, & Max Webb

The rabbis teach that Abraham was the first who had the merit of looking old. Notice the word — “merit.” It was considered, by our tradition, a good thing; it meant you had lived and learned. We compliment people by saying, “You look so young!” Accomplishment and wisdom counted more to our ancestors than vitality; innocence was not as valued as experience. For our tradition, what lay before you was not as important as what was behind you. Recently in my synagogue, we celebrated three remarkable individuals who reached their 100th birthdays. One hundred years is a long time when…

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Becoming Who You Are

Many Hasidic passages teach that true worship of God comes from inside oneself. Rabbi Bunim commenting on a passage in the Talmud, said that if one wishes to be stringent solely because his father was stringent, he is not allowed to do so. Authenticity and not imitation is the standard of devotion. If that is so, what do we do with the many teachings that are inheritances? Surely most of Judaism is what we learn from others, not what we arrive at ourselves. First we must distinguish between commandments, which need not originate with oneself, and practices which are outgrowths…

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Why Elijah – And When?

Why do we open the door for Elijah at the Passover Seder? In the Bible, Elijah does not die (he goes up to heaven in a chariot – see 2 Kings, chapter 2). Therefore he is the prophet our tradition assumes will return to announce the coming of the Messiah. The cup of Elijah stands on the table because of an unresolved Talmudic dispute over whether there should be four or five cups of wine at the Seder table. We use four. If Elijah drinks, we learn that five is the correct answer. The Rabbis teach that when Elijah comes…

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Soul Food

Is it strange to say that Jews don’t read the Bible? We study the Torah, of course, but for many that is an enterprise confined to synagogue. So we read the five books, and the haftaroth, which are passages from the historical and prophetic writings. But even the books that are part of the liturgical calendar — Jonah, Esther, Ecclesiastes and so forth, are too often neglected. But what riches! To read the book of Job is to understand why it is a touchstone for sufferers throughout the generations. Its eloquence and anger speak for every person in pain. Its arguments…

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The Door To Your Heart

Everyone knows that the conditions of life make a huge difference to its quality. If you are hungry, or sick, or sad over loss, it is much harder to feel that life is as good as when your needs are met. But we also know that sometimes a shift in attitude can make a dramatic difference. And a wise, loving word can help us see things in a new light. Rabbi Aryeh Levin was called the holy man of Jerusalem. He spent his adult life visiting prisoners of all sorts, bringing them food, learning and comfort. Once after Passover some…

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Trash Heap and Treasure

When I ran a library I often had the experience of pulling a book from the shelf, out of idle curiosity, only to discover that no one had looked at that book for many years. Sometimes, as I began to leaf through it I discovered treasures. In the spirit of the marvelous site, things that seemed moribund sprung to life and made a difference. Such experiences remind me of the mania for preservation that drives the Jewish people. Why do we continually tend vast gardens of old learning? In part because one never knows when a comment, an insight or interpretation, will…

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Five Minutes Longer

In years of watching people accomplish remarkable things, I have seen affirmed what my father told me when I was a child – the secret of success is stamina. It is wonderful to have gifts, but I have known extravagantly gifted people who cannot lift their legs out of the mud. There are many explanations for the greatness of Moses, but surely central is that for forty years, each day, he lifted the burden of a people on his shoulders and bore them through the desert. Think of the mornings he arose and wished to cast off the task; he…

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What You Have – Who You Are

It is common to take pride in possessions, but perhaps that is why the Jewish people started out with nothing, as slaves. For the essence of Judaism is not possession but action. We are taught to take pride not in what we have but who we are. The goods of this world move from person to person, but our attributes shape our essence. The great English essayist Hazlitt says the following in his piece “On Personal Identity”: “I have the love of power, but not of property. I should like to be able to outstrip a greyhound in speed; but…

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Tell Me A Story

Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights tells stories that keep her alive. So long as the king is enchanted by what comes next, night after night, he will ensure her safety. When contemplating the astonishing survival of the Jewish people I sometimes think of Scheherazade. There is a great deal of emphasis on Jewish law and interpretation and text and ritual. But history — the Jewish story — is an ever branching tree that has flourished for thousands of years. “And you shall tell your children” we are admonished over and over again. Our story sustains us. The story is always changing….

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Older and Wiser?

When I was young I made an astonishing discovery about Jewish daily prayer. Each morning service had a confessional. I remember wondering, do we really sin each day? When I paid attention to my own conduct and that of my classmates, I realized the prescience of the tradition. We hit each other, hurt each other and often said cruel things. We were kids. The confessional gave us a moment in each service to think about what we had done and to face up to it before God. But I do remember thinking – surely when I get older I will…

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Marking Time

Before the final plague, the Torah sets out the calendar, announcing the first month in Spring. In slavery there is no distinction between days; each is a grueling succession of labor and harshness. But to be free means to mark time and shape it. At the very beginning of our journey as a people, God teaches us to create sacred time. The desert may seem eternally the same, but the days themselves will not be. We count by the moon, which changes, waxing and waning, hinting at the fullness to come. “This is the first month to you (Ex. 12:2).”…

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The Laughing Philosopher

Each of us has witnessed things that if unshared, the world will never know. I would like to tell you of a remarkable event I once saw, so that the image will live on. There is a custom in Israel on Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, for children, sometimes carried on the shoulders of their parents, to walk around the streets with plastic hammers, bopping people on the head. I don’t know its origin, but everyone who has been there has witnessed the glee. Many years ago on this day I was walking on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and I spotted…

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A Life Of Balance

Spirituality in modern teachings often emphasizes self-actualization. As a unique human being, you are called to develop your potential, your spark of godliness. The second side of this is the call of the ‘other.’A truly ethical life, in this view, is lived less by developing your own capacities than by devoting yourself to developing the capacities of other people. Sometimes the two are made into one – how do you awaken your own gifts? Through giving to others. While that is partly true, the simple solution is too simple. There are areas of cultivation that require solitude and even selfishness….

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Poetry Of Our People

I spent my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. There I studied literature and wrote a letter to my parents about how deeply I was enamored of the great British poets – Wordsworth, Burns, Byron and others. I will never forget my father’s reply. He told me he was glad I was getting so much out of the year. But then he reminded me that English literature became the literature of the world “on the backs of British soldiers.” Jews, he wrote, had poets but no armies; I should not neglect Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gabirol and Bialik and Tzernikovsky. For…

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What Makes A Congregation

In the book of Numbers, we are told that silver trumpets will summon the congregation and set the camps to march (10:2). In a beautiful comment, Rabbi Soloveitchik delineates the difference: “An encampment is created out of a desire for self-defense and thrives on fear. A Congregation is fashioned out of longing for the realization of an exalted moral idea and thrives on love.” People and nations often band together out of fear. But closeness that has roots in fear will dissolve when the threat passes. More than that, there is often a residual shame in caring for one another…

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5 Spiritual New Year’s Resolutions

The best resolutions are elastic—they cannot be broken with a single act. If you swear never to touch red meat, one burger ruins the resolution. If, on the other hand, you pledge to eat healthier food, each day you have a chance to fulfill the resolution anew. Below are five elastic spiritual resolutions that can carry you throughout the year. 1. Engage with people more than pixels. Looking at a phone is quick and undemanding. Texting is easier than talking—it gives you intimacy without danger. This year, resolve to spend more time looking into someone’s eyes when you communicate with…

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