Off the Pulpit


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The Quiet Patriarch

We know less about Isaac than any of the other patriarchs. In the major events of his life he is acted upon – being bound for the Akedah and having Jacob steal the birthright by fooling Isaac in old age. But we are also told that he redug the wells of his father and never left the land of Israel. In other words, Isaac was the patriarch of consolidation, the one who ensured that the remarkable achievements of Abraham would not be lost. Jacob could wander, because he had, in the terms of modern psychology, a secure base. Isaac is…

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A Lesson On This Week’s Loss

This was a week of losses. The horrible shooting in Pittsburgh preoccupies all of us, and the question of how to respond. Yet another loss we suffered this week points the way. In our community we lost Max Webb at the age of 101. Max survived multiple labor and concentration camps. He was a builder, a philanthropist, a one time dance instructor and a remarkably wise and sparkling human being. And I will never forget what he told me almost twenty years ago. Having moved into a condo, Max one day approached me and asked how the condo was. You…

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Eat Quietly???

Recently in Japan I had lunch at a Zen Temple (the all-vegetarian cuisine was outstanding). My friends and I were seated next to one another. One of the adepts explained that we were not across from each other to discourage conversation. People were supposed to concentrate wordlessly on their food. I thought of my family’s Shabbes table, or indeed any table, weekday or Shabbat, breakfast, lunch or dinner. The only silence was due to my mother’s unaccountably insisting that we not talk when our mouth’s were full of food. Otherwise it was a circus of volubility: jokes, questions, emphatic answers,…

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The Art of Rivalry

In his book “The Art of Rivalry” Sebastian Smee writes about the often bitter rivalries that existed between the great artists of the twentieth century. Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollock and De Kooning, and Freud and Bacon were sometimes friends, sometimes enemies and always in competition with one another. Smee shows that the rivalry made each a better artist. The notion of rivalry to improve rather than simply destroy is increasingly rare. In sports, the end zone dance is to mock the opposition. In politics, the argument is not for clarity but victory. There is a delight in…

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Yes, Sukkot is over, but Rabbi David Bashevkin drew my attention to a beautiful comment that you can remember until next year! During the grace after meals on Sukkot we recoite the blessing asking God to rebuild the “fallen Sukkah of David.” The blessing comes from the prophet Amos (9:11). The Maharal of Prague points out that when we ask God to rebuild the “fallen Sukkah” of David, we are saying something profound about the nature of a Sukkah. Unlike a house which, when it falls or crumbles, is no longer a house but a pile of rubble, even a…

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When Rudyard Kipling’s popularity was at his height, the story goes, he used to receive 10 shillings a word for his stories. Two students at Oxford mischievously sent him a letter enclosing 10 shillings, explaining that they had heard of his rate per word, and asking Kipling to send them one of his best. Kipling wrote back, “Thanks.” The first words tradition asks us to say in the morning are words of gratitude – modeh ani. We should be grateful for the privilege of each new day that we are able to experience the variety and wonder of this life….

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Here To Stay

After Yom Kippur comes Sukkot. Repentance, then rain. Sukkot actually reinforces the theme of Yom Kippur in a powerful way. The Day of Atonement teaches the brevity of life – who shall live and who shall die. Coming off the day we might feel insecure, knowing that we are fleeting, as if singled out to be momentary beings on the face of time. But Sukkot reminds us that nothing lasts – not the structures of human beings, not even the natural materials from which we compose our homes. Judaism recognizes only the permanence of God. Everything else moves through the…

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Divided Creatures

Each of us faces two kinds of intertwined struggles: those with the world and those inside oneself. True, if you change yourself you are likely to act differently toward others, and if you act differently it will trigger changes in the self. Yet we still appreciate that these are somehow distinct. Meditation and prayer we understand as essentially internal. Feeding the hungry or taking part in political demonstrations, for example, we think of as mostly external. There is a large Jewish literature on practicing even if one does not feel the desire to do so, in the belief that action…

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Blessings and Bereavements

As a pulpit rabbi, I look out each High Holidays at a different congregation. The year before we chanted “who shall live and who shall die.” I see absences – people who were there the year before who are no longer there. Bereavements have left spaces in our community. The congregation is also different because I have learned about many of my congregants in the interim. Some have married or had children; others divorced or suffered some sort of personal setback or tragedy. Some have come to speak to me and confided something about their lives or the lives of…

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Praying For Fear

On Rosh Hashana we repeat U’vchein ten Pachdecha which is literally – grant your fear. Since fear seems such a negative concept, why is this phrase so central to the prayers? Fear can be a more powerful motivator than love. You may love others, but a police car behind you will be more effective in getting you to drive safely than the love of the driver in front of you. And while it is true that fear sometimes prevents us from doing what we might, it is also true that a bit more fear might help prevent us from doing…

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