Off the Pulpit


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Your Own Two Feet

“For God brought about the victory. Once Beowulf had struggled to his feet, the holy and omniscient ruler of the sky easily settled the issue in favor of the right.” What is striking about those lines from the renowned medieval poem Beowulf is how they embody the idea that God helps Beowulf once the warrior struggles to his feet. Beowulf must initiate his own salvation. God responds to human self-assertion. That same idea is beautifully expressed one thousand years before in God’s message to the prophet Ezekiel. When in the beginning of the book (2:1) Ezekiel begins to prophecy, God…

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Hatred’s Door

Years ago on a trip to Paris with my then 16-year-old daughter, we visited a score of museums: The Louvre, of course, the magnificent Quai Branly, the Rodin museum, the Pompidou center, and the Hugo house. Each had a small if cursory security check. Then we sought out the small, very fine Jewish museum in the Marais. Here, we passed through a double glass door that did not allow you to continue to the front until the back had closed. The saddest part was my daughter’s insouciance. “Did you notice the security?” I asked. She nodded, “Dad, it’s the Jewish…

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Building a Life

“What should I do with my life?” The question pursues us to the very end of our days. Whether we are fulfilling our destiny in this world is a constant challenge and provocation. Some believe each of us has a fixed, preset destiny and life is a search; others believe our purpose is created and life is a shaping. Judaism offers both models. There are moments and missions that require only we heed the voice: In ancient times, Abraham was chosen and resolute. In modern times, many visionaries felt that they had only to pay attention and their journey was…

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What Would You Give?

The first mention of love in the Torah occurs when God tells Abraham to offer up Isaac, “whom you love.” (Gen. ch. 22) Why should the Torah choose this improbable moment to mention love for the first time? For a moment let us set aside all the other questions involved in the very difficult story to ponder why love is introduced here. All love has an element of sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban, comes from the root “to draw close.” When you sacrifice for another you draw close to them. One of the reasons we so treasure our…

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To Hold with Open Arms

When the renowned Rabbi Milton Steinberg recovered following his heart attack, he walked out into the bright midday sun. He thought, “How precious – how careless.” Life is so precious, and we are so careless with it. How can we be so heedless when we know that everything must end? Perhaps we fear that if we care too much, the losses of life will be unbearable. How should we live, knowing everything can vanish in an instant? This is how Steinberg concludes in words written more than half a century ago: “And only with God can we ease the intolerable…

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Passover and Real Freedom

Ask most schoolchildren the meaning of Passover and they will say “freedom” or perhaps, “freedom from slavery.” They aren’t wrong, but the answer is incomplete in a very important way. The famous Passover phrase, “let my people go,” is abbreviated. The full sentence is, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” The historian of Ideas, Isaiah Berlin, made a famous distinction between being “liberated from” and being “liberated to.” To be liberated from oppression is the beginning of freedom, not its end or aim. True freedom is abundance of opportunity, not absence of obligation. A man in a…

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We Were Poets and We Were Young

How do we make the past come alive to a generation that did not live through it? Each person wishes their stories to live in the echoes of later generations. The 19th century English poet Flecker, addressing a poet who will read him 1,000 years later, wrote: “O friend unseen, unborn, unknown/ Student of our sweet English tongue/ Read out my words at night, alone/ I was a poet, I was young.” Judaism carries memory through words and through ritual. The voices of those who have lived before us survive in the faith they lived and shaped. We remember them…

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The Solidarity of Grief

I’ve often been asked to join a minyan, a quorum of ten. But I am never asked to join “so we can say Barchu” (a prayer only recited with a minyan) or “so we can do a full Amidah” (also done only with a minyan). It is invariably so someone can say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. The obvious reason is to come to the aid of one who grieves. Saying Kaddish is usually a more urgent emotional need than other prayers. However, we might also see it as a tribute to the one who has died. When we…

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A Hundred Times a Day

Jewish tradition bids us to offer a hundred blessings a day. This is not about the numbers; there is nothing magical about one hundred. The one who recited ninety-nine blessings is not spiritually derelict. The secret is not in the numbers, but in the underlying ideology of blessing. The mishna exhorts us to pray when we see lightning, mountains, deserts, the ocean, a long lost friend and myriad other things as well. Each category has its own formulated blessing, reminding us of the Author of all. This is not the enterprise of accumulating blessings; it is training in cultivating appreciation….

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A New Strategy

As different factions argue in modern times many strategies have been tried. There has been bullying, out-reasoning, ignoring, insulting, throwing data at one another, quoting authorities – you name it, every way of winning the argument has been tried. Strangely however, one thing that proved effective in the Talmud is neglected. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) says that the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the two great rabbinic schools, argued for years. A voice came from heaven and said that both houses were the word of the living God – that is, in great disputes, there is no solitary truth. However,…

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