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May


The Sacred City, Jerusalem


Over three thousand years ago Jerusalem was chosen. There are indications it was a place of distinction before, but David’s decision to choose a capital city located between the North and South — as Washington, D.C. is in the U.S. — was decisive. In the great poet Yehuda Amichai’s imagination, Jerusalem still whispers its original Jebusite name: “Y’vus, Y’vus, Y’vus in the dark.” The silent stones speak of ancient peoples, and even today notes are placed in the wall as if to coax the mute rocks into eloquence. Through endless songs and photos and explanations people have tried to capture…

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Saved by Voices


A man complained to his psychiatrist that he talked to himself and was told that it is commonplace, nothing to worry about. But, said the man, you have no idea Doctor, what a nudnick I am. The more time we spend alone the more likely we are to grow accustomed and perhaps impatient with our own voices inside our heads. For some it is a good thing: musician and wit Oscar Levant said he was giving up reading because he found it took his mind off himself. For most of us however, other voices are essential even if we are…

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Jewish Doctors!


In the 12th century the great sage Maimonides wrote, “One who is ill has not only the right but the obligation to seek medical aid.” Jews have long been overrepresented in the medical field. To take one statistic quoted by Sherwin Nuland (a Jewish Doctor) in his short biography of Maimonides (a Jewish doctor): In the beginning of the fourteenth century, Jews comprised only 5% of the population of Marseilles. Almost half of the city’s doctors were Jewish. This connection endured over time. In Vienna before the second World War, close to three quarters of the doctors were of Jewish…

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The Most Important Word


“The Lord is my shepherd…” Few passages in the Bible are more familiar than the 23rd Psalm. It is recited at funerals, at the bedside of the sick and in times of consolation. Its brevity and majesty make it among the most loved poems of all time. For English speakers, the King James translation of the Psalm is part of the common culture: ‘my cup runneth over’ and ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ For us however, it is a word often unnoticed that is the most important in the entire Psalm: “Yea, though I walk…

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Empty Seats


I have a book called “Synagogues Without Jews.” It contains photographs of synagogues, many of them beautiful, where the Jewish community no longer exists. All that remains is the empty sanctuary. It bears mute, eloquent testimony to the destruction of Jewish communities across the globe. In this week when we celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, there are once again synagogues without Jews. The pandemic has emptied houses of worship and the sacred scrolls stand in the ark awaiting our return. Unlike the desolate sanctuaries in the book however, we will return to the synagogue. Once again celebrations and song…

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April


Freedom First


Passover is done, but may I bring one more word about matzah? Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a great chasidic master, once pointed out the strange sequence in the seder. Matzah represents freedom and the bitter herbs slavery. The seder begins with the Israelites enslaved. Why then do we eat matzah before maror, the bitter herbs? His answer was that we need to appreciate freedom before we can understand the bitterness of slavery. Matzah must come first. When we lament that we are trapped at home, it is because we understand the joy of being able to go where we wish. Every…

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A Truth of Life


“There was not a house in which there was not death.” The Torah says this with regard to the Egyptians, but it is also a universal truth. Sooner or later in every house in which there is life there will be death. We avoid confronting that reality. For most of human history people died in the streets or at home. Modern arrangements have made death remote and antiseptic. But the world reminds us that we do not have forever; that life is fragile and fleeting; that refusing to confront the reality of death does not change the fact that we…

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Whose Affliction?


“This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”   Why does the second sentence follow the first?   Perhaps we are misreading the famous injunction to be kind to the strangers because we were strangers in Egypt. It might not mean — you were a stranger so it is natural to have empathy for other strangers. For often people react in the opposite way: “I suffered and made it through, so they too can make it through.” Sometimes the difficulty of one’s own experience hardens rather than softens…

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Whose Affliction?


This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” Why does the second sentence follow the first? Perhaps we are misreading the famous injunction to be kind to the strangers because we were strangers in Egypt. It might not mean — you were a stranger so it is natural to have empathy for other strangers. For often people react in the opposite way: “I suffered and made it through, so they too can make it through.” Sometimes the difficulty of one’s own experience hardens rather than softens us. The Torah may be…

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Freedom In Captivity


The great Rabbi, the Maharal of Prague in the 16th century wrote that Passover changed the nature of the Jewish people, making them free even throughout the captivities of history. This theme was expressed in the twentieth century by Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the Tzaddik of Jerusalem who used to visit prisons and tell prisoners that genuine freedom began not from without, but from within. In our own time, luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, although in prison, testified that they felt freedom in their souls.   For many of us this will be the first Pesach when we…

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