Off the Pulpit


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Judaism begins in walking. God tells Abraham to ‘lech,’ go, and he and Sarah walk for many miles to the land that will be Israel. Jewish law is called halachah, which means walking. Angels are sometimes referred to as omdim, those who stand, as opposed to human beings, who walk. Motion is life and change and growth. Movement of the body aids movement of the mind. An angel tells the depressed and motionless Elijah to walk back to the people, Miriam dances in joy at the sea, and Isaac, when he first sees his beloved Rebeka, is wandering in the…

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Your Politics and Mine — and His and Hers

Of course your political views are correct, but may I take a moment to remind you of something? Moses’ leadership was repeatedly challenged and Korach’s uprising against him seemed to have wide support. King David almost lost the battle with his son Absalom, who rebelled against him. After Solomon, the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel split when different sides proclaimed different Kings. The Maccabees eventually lost the support of the people. There were so many quarreling factions in rabbinic times that the rabbis themselves attributed the destruction of the Temple to the mutual animosity of Jews with varied allegiances….

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No Perfect Home

The Torah begins with the letter bet, the same letter that begins bayit in Hebrew, home. Some have taken this as a signal – here is your home, in the Torah. Yet it is an uneasy home, full of wandering, perplexity and challenge. Such unease is part of the true nature of home. Commenting on the phrase ger toshav, ‘stranger-resident’ the Maggid of Dubno explains we should all feel both comfortable in the world and out of place in it, like residents and like strangers. Echoing this insight is the philosopher Adorno: “The highest form of morality is not to…

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Before my freshman year of college, the synagogue in which I was raised moved to a new location. I visited the old synagogue, now abandoned, and when asked in freshman English to write about a personal experience I wrote the following. Written more than forty years ago, I rediscovered it in a drawer, right before Yom Kippur. Slowly I ascend the steps of the synagogue. I remember when throngs of worshippers would have been at my side walking with me ages ago. The temple has moved to another place. As I climb I feel I am saying goodbye to too…

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Loving Jews

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about Ahavath Yisrael, loving the Jewish people, and was told by a friend that some young people he spoke to found it elitist and distasteful. Permit me three responses: 1 — Had an Irishman said he loved all the Irish, or an Albanian said she loved all Albanians, my guess is these people would have found it an endearing expression of national pride. Loving and embracing your people of origin is not to hate or look down on others; it is an affirmation made daily by members of almost every group, religious, ethnic, cultural and…

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A Reflection And A Prayer

Each year we wonder, “who will live and who will die?” We know that the question is genuine, but this year it feels more urgent than it has in my lifetime. By most measures human life has grown better, more prosperous and longer. Hunger and disease — the pandemic obviously aside — have declined. These processes are gradual, and don’t make the morning paper. Humanity as a whole lives in a more comfortable and kinder world than ever before. Nonetheless there is so much that looms as danger. Amidst the pandemic, the fires, the social unrest, random outbursts of violence…

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Bring Them Home

For five years Hamas has kept the bodies of two soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. For six years, an Israeli citizen Avraham Mengistu, has been held by Hamas. One of the byproducts of distress is that it wipes out the distress of others. As the world has been struggling with the pandemic and all kinds of social unrest, many of us have forgotten the heartbreak of the families who remember their loved ones remains untended and unburied, or even worse, imagine the fate of their family member who remains captive. The repatriation of Jewish captives, pidyon shevuyim, is among…

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“Live out loud, you are unique, celebrate who you are.” Our world is awash in such slogans. Self-esteem is prized, self-assertion applauded and spiking the football, rather than arrogance, is considered justifiable pride. There is another way of being in this world described in our tradition. The three Hebrew letters for “me” – aleph, nun and yod, can be rearranged to spell “ayin” which means “nothing.” When I was learning counseling I read of the practice of “bittul hayesh” – nullifying the self, in order to make space for others. It is not a lack of belief in one’s own…

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Three Short Shofar Lessons

The one who blows the shofar produces the sound from within his or her body. The force of the shofar is breath, in Hebrew, ruah – spirit. In order to create the sound properly one must bring one’s spirit to the world. The second lesson is how one creates the sound. As Cynthia Ozick observed, the shofar has a broad end and a narrow end. If you begin by blowing in the broad end, you get nothing. But if you blow in the narrow end you get a sound everyone can hear. Judaism may seem like one small tradition in a large world. But Jews who have…

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How Life Imitates Chess

While the pandemic has been disastrous for many activities, it has been a boon for chess. Online tournaments have exploded, thanks largely to the world champion Magnus Carlsen. I became a chess player at 14, and fell so deeply into the game that on my bedroom door in high school, was a quote from Grandmaster Isaiah Horowitz: “Of chess they say that life is not long enough for it, but that is the fault of life, not chess.” So it was a particular thrill to have lunch last year with Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest player in the history of…

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