Off the Pulpit


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An Ancient Right To Privacy

In an internet age, there is a great deal of discussion about the right to privacy.             The Torah already contains a provision for privacy – a creditor may not enter a debtor’s home even to fetch what is due to him (Deut. 24:10-11). The prohibition on entering another’s home unannounced is then embraced by the Rabbis of the Talmud as a general principle. R. Shimon lists entering a house – even one’s own – unannounced is one of four things that God detests and people do not like either! And not to enter a house…

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A Sage On Freedom Of Speech

One of the characteristics of great sages is that they rise above their times and express truths despite the prevailing climate of opposing opinion. The following was written in the 16th century: “Even if his words are spoken and directed against faith and religion, do not tell a man not to speak and suppress his words. Otherwise there will be no clarification in religious matters. On the contrary, one should tell a person to express whatever he wants…and he should never claim that he would have said more, had he been given the opportunity…Thus my opinion is contrary to what…

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The Greatest Beauty

There is a poignant story of Reb Aryeh Levin, a saintly and renowned Rabbi of Jerusalem who passed away in 1969. Once before the holiday of Sukkot, when people were busily seeking the perfect etrog (the fruit used for the Sukkot celebration) Reb Aryeh was seen heading into an old age home. A student asked him why, when visiting an old age home was possible at any time of the year, he would not use his precious moments before the holiday to choose the perfect etrog.   Reb Aryeh told him that there are two times when the Torah uses…

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Beyond The Fire

“When God saw that Moses turned aside to look, God called out of the bush (Ex. 3:4)” Why? What was so special about Moses turning aside to look that only then did God call out? The rabbis teach that the bush had been burning since the beginning of time but only Moses saw that it was special, that it was not consumed. In this Moses teaches us perhaps the most important lesson about contemporary politics and culture.   The word ‘focus’ comes from the Latin, meaning ‘domestic hearth.’ In other words, a fire makes us focus. We all know how…

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Advice For In-Laws?

“Therefore a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife” teaches Genesis 2:24. I have always thought that verse was directed toward parents and even more, in-laws.   It is a familiar scenario. You raise children, feed them, care for their every need, and feel that powerful bond that love and dependency create. You remember their last cold and their first steps. Then one day she comes home and points to a boy you have never met and says, “This is the most important person in the world to me.”   You might feel wounded, but…

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The First and the Last

The first mitzvah in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. The last mitzvah is to write a Sefer Torah. In some sense, these are the same mitzvah.   Judaism entrusts its adherents with the sacred task of transmission. Never a dominant faith in population, it has often counted on a “saving remnant” to ensure its survival in this world.   Every parent, ever teacher, every writer and student and scribe is an agent of transmission.What is handed on will never be an exact copy of what was. The letters in the Torah remain the same but the implications…

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Commanded Not To Covet?

How can we be commanded not to covet? After all, wanting something is natural. Yet the tenth commandment teaches us not to covet. There are many answers in the Jewish tradition. One points to the idea that you only covet that which you believe you can have. Whatever belongs to someone else should be considered strictly off limits, and if you think of it that way you will not covet it. More radically, one Hasidic response reminds us that in the Torah, they are not called the Ten Commandments, but aseret hadevarim – the ten sayings. The first for example,…

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Don’t Grovel!

In the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” God comes out of the sky and growls at the prostrate knights: “Oh, don’t grovel – one thing I can’t stand is people groveling.” Well, Monty Python may be British but their God sounds Jewish. When God first speaks to the prophet Ezekiel, the call begins: “Stand on your feet that I may speak to you (2:1).” In Jewish prayer we bend for a blessing, but we say God’s name once we have returned to an upright position. Falling to one’s knees or on one’s face is very rare, restricted to…

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Artists and Passengers

The medieval poet Moses Ibn Ezra used the following simile: We are like passengers on a ship, believing we are stationary when in fact we are headed toward a destination. Similarly, we do not realize that as we believe our lives to be steady state, we move inexorably toward death. Judaism is neither fixated on death nor in denial about it. We return from a funeral to food; the “meal of transition” affirms that however sad, mourners are alive, and the needs of the living must be addressed. Remembering the dead is a sacred obligation. Those who remember should themselves…

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Spiritual Fractals

The cauliflower explains a lot about the Jewish tradition. A fractal is a self-similar pattern, whose scale or size differs. Things in nature display different degrees of such self-similarity — break a cauliflower apart and a piece will look like a whole. Much of the modern interest in fractals is due to the work of Benoit Mandelbrot, a Jewish mathematician born in Warsaw who left before the war and went on to have a very distinguished career. Our sages teach that the deeds of the ancestors are signs for the children. In other words, Jewish history repeats itself, and if…

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