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December


Two Dreams, Two Miracles, One Meaning


Joseph has two dreams – one of sheaves and one of stars. The first is a dream of material and the second a dream of spirit. We read the Joseph story on Hanukkah, which tells of two miracles: the miracle of the military victory and the miracle of the oil. The first is a material miracle – as the al Hanissim prayer puts it, the strong were given into the hands of the weak. The second is a spiritual miracle. Judaism is a tradition of balance. We do not ask people to commit to lives of pure spiritual yearning, fasting,…

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November


A Thanksgiving Prayer


The first words I say in the morning, in accordance with the Jewish tradition, are Mode Ani, “I thank You.” I walk out of my house and am greeted by the dawn. I step from a house I didn’t build in clothes I did not sew into a day I did not create with a life I was given. Thank you. With each challenge and difficulty that arises in the day, I try to be mindful that things that seem unbearable now may later be important; I’ve lived long enough to remember how we treasure people and things in retrospect….

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More Than One Way to be a Slave


Pharaoh “intensified the labor” of the Israelites. The tyrant’s motivation was deeper than random cruelty. In ‘Mesillat Yesharim,’ Path of the Upright, his famed book on ethical conduct, Rabbi Moses Luzzato writes that this was a measure to circumvent the possibility of rebellion. The Israelites would just be too busy to think and plan. He goes on to say that the same principle applies in our own lives. Without the time to reflect on our souls, on our conduct, we are easily led astray and cannot break the bondage of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Who has not done…

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The Secret of Memory


A peculiar event marks the life of one of America’s greatest philosophers and writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was married only a year and a half when his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis. Thirteen months later, we have a cryptic entry in his journal: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” He never tells us what he learned by this, and throughout the journals that he devotedly kept through his life, the incident is not mentioned again. But Emerson did carry one lesson with him that may have been influenced by peering into his wife’s grave. He wrote, “The…

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The Secret of Memory


Renowned historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi once noted that the Jewish people were the first in history who saw memory as a religious obligation. In his aptly titled book Zakhor, “Remember,” he traced the ways in which Jews recorded and reconstructed the events of their history. The more we learn about memory the more we realize it is not a tape recorder; indeed we do not even use the same ‘storage systems’ for different kinds of memory. The way you recall breakfast is not the same as the way you recall a childhood incident, although it may seem the same. Scans…

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October


Recognizing God


How did Abraham first come to God? The Torah does not say, although the Rabbis offer stories to explain. One imagines that Abraham was like a man who spots a palace in flames. He cries out, “Is no one responsible for this palace?” From an upper window the owner peeks through to declare he is responsible. The palace has an owner. Similarly, Abraham, seeing the world in flames, cried out “Is no one responsible for this world?” God came to Abraham in response to his cry. The twist to this midrash is that the word for “in flames” is doleket….

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Bring Back the Noise


For years we had a problem at morning minyan. There is a day school in the synagogue, which is a great blessing. The kids arrive around the time of the minyan, which is less of a blessing. People trying to pray would be distracted by a sudden onrush of noise – parents dropping off their children, children shouting to one another, and an occasional frantic student running into the chapel to grab a kippah that was inadvertently left at home. The minyan attendees were a very tolerant bunch, but sometimes it was not easy. Then of course, the pandemic struck….

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A Tradition of Song


In synagogue we do something that people in society rarely do – we sing together. Our greatest heroes composed shirim – the Hebrew word for Psalm and also for song. Moses sang, Miriam sang, and King David was the “sweet singer of Israel (2 Sam 23:1).” When the children of Israel cross the sea, they cry out “The Lord is my strength and my song (ex. 15:2).” The spirit of song runs deep in the Jewish people. There is a small midrash called Perek Shirah, the chapter of song. It depicts the entire world singing to God, beginning with the…

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The Gift of Growth


One of the unfortunate aspects of current culture is that the antagonisms are counterproductive: insulting someone makes them less susceptible to change. Who would wish to join the side that has vilified them? The ratcheting up of rhetoric makes others less likely to have a change of heart and make common cause with a side that was so unkind to them. This is partly a symptom of a tragic view of human beings — that they cannot or will not change. When someone apologizes, the instant response is to distrust its sincerity. When a person does change a position or…

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The True Story of a Record-breaking Feat


In 1943, chess grandmaster Miguel Najdorf played 40 opponents simultaneously – blindfold. As interesting as the feat itself is why he chose to do it. Najdorf grew up in Poland as Mojsze Mendel Najdorf and became one of the leading players in the world. In 1939, he was representing Poland in the chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires when WWII broke out. He stayed in Argentina and could not communicate with his family. Najdorf wanted to let them know how he was, and perhaps establish contact. He decided that if he did something that would make the newspapers all over the…

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