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Does God Take Checks?

We live in an age of unprecedented wealth. Do we therefore live in an age of unprecedented charity? Many studies have demonstrated that paradoxically, rich people give a much lower percentage of their income to charity than poor people. As wealth accumulates, giving does not usually follow suit. There are exceptions of course; but the rule seems to hold.  For many people giving is a numbers game. Their livelihood will not be affected no matter how much they give. It is a matter of numbers on a page or a screen. Yet the psychological obstacles to generosity are real. Many who could give don’t simply because…

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Biblical Karma

Jacob fools his father Isaac, disguising himself as Esau and taking the blessing. How does the Torah itself regard his action? The subtle critique can be found later on in Jacob’s story. He works for seven years to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel. At the end of that time however, he wakes up in bed next to Leah. The Rabbis imagine that when he upbraids Leah for conniving with her sister, she answers — “are there teachers without disciples?” In other words, you had it coming, buddy. Jacob pretended to be his brother. He was deceived by Leah pretending to be her sister. He fooled…

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Methuselah and Me

Yes, I also read the health studies that advise eating this and avoiding that. I don’t always adhere to the recommendations but I follow them as if, well, as if my life depended on it. At the same time, I know that you cannot savor life if I worry constantly about extending it. Living is not a contest for duration but a pageant of meaning. Grateful as I am for the drugs that put my cancer in remission, and the studies that made my eating healthier (sometimes), and the devotion of experts in all fields, I am also aware that everyone’s days…

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The First Teacher

“From the child of five to myself is but a step,” wrote Leo Tolstoy. “But from the new-born baby to the child of five is an astonishing distance.” Modern research validates Tolstoy’s insight. The first years are formative. For most of history, the teacher in those early years was a child’s mother. Even though women were often voiceless in public, their influence was unparalleled in shaping the generations. We see a clear example of this in the Torah. Abraham has several children. Isaac and Ishmael of course, but after Sarah’s death, he marries again and has six more children (Gen. 25:2). None of…

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Decisions Shape Destiny

Why does the Torah so often tell the tales of siblings? From Cain and Abel, the Genesis stories and on to Moses and Aaron, we are being told something important about human nature. Ultimately, our lives are shaped by our choices. Yes there are differences in families and circumstances; some people undoubtedly have a much more difficult road than others. Yet the Torah teaches that even when people grow up in the same family and have similar experiences and opportunities, who they become is who they choose to be.  Everything, says the Talmud, is in the hands of heaven except the fear of…

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Poets, Martyrs, and Memory

Identity is largely memory. When asked who we are, we respond with the past — I am someone who was born here, worked there, is tied to this family and community. A painful effect of Alzheimer’s is that in wiping out memory, it erases identity as well.             What is true for individuals is true for a people. Jewish identity is shaped by Jewish memory. The less we know about who we were, the less we understand who we are.             Jewish memory includes tragedy of course, but there is much more to our tradition than catastrophe. We have been badly hurt, but we have…

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We Are Making Progress

Good is more laborious than bad. One wrecking ball can destroy a structure it took months to build; one driver can snarl traffic for hours in spite of thousands of good drivers; as Napoleon said to his brother, “Remember, it takes ten campaigns to create esprit de corps which can be destroyed in an instant.” That is why we should marvel at the tremendous progress human beings have made. Yes, we have a million problems, and a single terrible war can wipe out centuries of advance (see the first sentence above). Nonetheless child mortality and extreme poverty have been cut…

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Our Two Communities

Guests are invited to our sukkah, some of whom are alive and some of whom are historical. The Ushpizin, biblical characters who traditionally visit the sukkah, remind us that we all live in two communities. There is a horizontal community. They are our contemporaries, who surround us: family and friends, teachers, work associates, and even those whom we watch or listen to and help shape our opinions about the world. Our horizontal community has the advantage of being immediate and alive; it has the disadvantage of limitation — you can only choose it from people who happen to be upright when you are….

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Low Hanging Fruit

Sukkot is a magnificent holiday. It involves building, dwelling outdoors, recalls the harvest, a journey through the ages and a memory of the desert sky. Right after Yom Kippur, with its ethereal echoes, it returns us to the earth. Sukkot is the Jewish enactment of low hanging fruit. It is a reason to invite your friends and neighbors over, without the bother of having to clean your house (before or after!) And you have a place to put up all those cards and kids drawings. Genius. The sukkah is a mitzvah you can do with your entire body. Even better,…

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Love and Knowledge

Early in his career Lawrence Olivier was playing Sergius in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” When English director Tyrone Guthrie came to see the play he asked Olivier: “Don’t you love Sergius?” Olivier answered that he didn’t, and Gurthrie said to him, “Well, of course, if you can’t love him, you’ll never be any good in him, will you?” Olivier later called this the “richest pearl of advice in my life.” As an actor, Olivier understood that love was the entree to the character’s soul. What is true in acting is surely true in general. The best way…

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Turn Your Head – For Rosh Hashana

The Psalmist insists that God has removed our sins “as far as east is from west.” (Ps. 103:12). How far is east from west? The Kotzker Rebbe explains – as far as a turn of your head. We think of changing as a remote, difficult task. But sometimes it requires only a small turn. Veer slightly on the road, and over time one’s destination is quite different. Adding to one habit, or diminishing another, is a small turn that over time becomes a major change. We read in Deuteronomy that Israel will be “Only high and not low” (28:13). Rabbi…

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Your Inner Isaac

My father once explained the character of the biblical Isaac by citing Abraham Mendelssohn. He was a successful banker whose father was the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and whose son was the great composer Felix Mendelssohn. Late in life he lamented, “The first half of my life I was the son of my father; the second half of my life I was the father of my son.” Isaac was the son of Abraham, founder of the Jewish faith, and father of Jacob, source of the twelve tribes. But Isaac had his own special virtues. He re-dug the wells of his…

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Inside and Outside

I judge myself from the inside. I know how I feel, how complex are my own motivations and ideas. My view of others is different. Especially when they do something I dislike, I often attribute a single motive, idea or personality trait to them. Perhaps for this month of Elul we should reverse the process. Try seeing yourself from the outside — how do my actions affect others? How do they appear to them? At the same time, try to judge others from the inside: what could have moved them to do this, or why might they have done something I think is…

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Who Made That?

Two hundred years from now, on a fine spring afternoon, scientists look up at the heavens and tell God that it is all over — humans can stand on their own. The scientist says, “Look, God. You were good in your day but we can do everything ourselves now.” “Really?” says God. “You can make a human being from dust?” “Absolutely” say the scientists. “Let me see” answers God. The scientist reaches down to scoop up some soil, but is interrupted. “Oh no” says God. “You get your own dust.” Human beings have learned a remarkable amount about manipulating the world. But…

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Baruch HaShem

When you ask a religious Jew how he or she is doing, the answer is likely to be “Baruch HaShem” – blessed be God. Good news often has “Baruch Hashem” added to it as well, as in, “my children are all well, Baruch HaShem.” Baruch Hashem appears three times in the bible. What may surprise you is that all three times it is spoken by non-Jews: by Noah in Genesis 9:26; by Abraham’s servant Eliezer in Gen. 24:27; and by Moses’ father-in-law Jethro in Exodus 18:10. This cannot be coincidence and it points to a beautiful lesson. Not only is God…

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Needs Wheels

From George Prochnik’s award winning biography of Stefan Zweig, “The Impossible Exile”: “One day in the 1920’s when Zweig happened to be traveling to Germany with Otto Zarek, the two men stopped off to visit an exhibition of antique furniture at a museum in Munich. After some desultory meandering around the galleries, Zweig stopped short before a display of enormous medieval wooden chests. “Can you tell me,” he abruptly asked, “which of these chests belonged to Jews?” Zarek stared uncertainly — they all looked of equally high quality and bore no apparent marks of ownership. “Zweig smiled. “Do you see…

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Two Rights Can Make A Wrong

Most ethical dilemmas, like most tragedies, are not a conflict of right and wrong but a conflict of rights. People want different, competing and sometimes worthy things that cannot coexist. The authors of the Federalist papers knew this well. When Madison writes that, “the causes of faction cannot be removed and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects” he is telling us that there will always be division — there will always be good reasons for division — and we have to be vigilant in not allowing those divisions to destroy us. Work…

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Responsibilities and Dreams

This past week all across the world Jews mourned the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And they blamed themselves. Yes, there are passages in Jewish literature that excoriate the nations who carried out the destruction. There are even passages that express anger at God. But primarily the Jews attribute the catastrophes of their history to their own misdeeds. In that is a danger and a blessing. The danger is clear: when something catastrophic happens that is not at all the fault of the people, such as the Shoah, to blame oneself is a moral monstrosity. No one should feel responsible for the inflicted…

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Direct Your Heart To Heaven

From the Talmud: A favorite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was: “I am God’s creature and my fellow is God’s creature. My work is in the town and his work is in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, so I do not presume to do his work. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: One may do much or one may do little; it is all one, provided he directs his heart to heaven.” Berachot 17a Judaism is a tradition of…

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Gifted, but Good?

We are a society geared toward the gifted. We have programs to enhance people’s natural endowments, special training and tutoring, early identification of people with talent or intelligence. Of course it makes sense; innovators and artists and thinkers should be given opportunities to grow their gifts. But moral education has to go hand in hand with ability; those who can make the greatest contribution need the greatest sensitivity to ethical issues. The Torah teaches this with the story of Bilaam. Bilaam was a pagan, but according to the Rabbis, he was the most gifted prophet in the world. In a…

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Listen Israel

Deuteronomy is the great book of listening. We live in a visual time; our age is saturated with images. Everyone’s cellphone carries a camera and can document the sights of our lives. But over and over in the first chapters of Deuteronomy we read the word ‘shma’ — listen, until we reach the famous line of the Shma prayer itself (Deut 6:4). Judaism expounds and echoes. In the bare desert there was little to see but much to hear. God does not appear, but speaks. The Talmud is called the Oral tradition, because it was passed down in stories and wisdom…

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Franz Kafka in his famous parable “Before the Law” writes about a man who stands before a door designated only for him, but dies without entering. A very different spirit from Kafka, Ralph Waldo Emerson, nonetheless anticipated the existentialist by writing: “Men live on the brink of mysteries and harmonies into which they never enter, and with their hand on the door latch they die outside.” During the Neilah service of Yom Kippur, the liturgy tells of the gates closing. The origin is both literal and metaphorical: the gates that closed on the ancient Temple at the end of a…

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Do you know OTSOG? That is the shorthand for “On the Shoulders of Giants” an absolutely singular book. In the mid 1960’s, the renowned sociologist Robert Merton decided to find out the origin of the phrase attributed to Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The search takes him through many lands, fields of learning and languages (including Hebrew and Jewish scholarship.) He rambles and speculates with wit and astonishing erudition. It is an intellectual romp and a tour de force. Merton also illustrates how thoughtful human beings throughout the…

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L.P. Smith put it this way: “I might give up my life for my friend, but he had better not ask me to do up a parcel.” Another Smith, Zadie, put it even better: “I will do anything for my family except visit them.”  Both were kidding of course. Sort of. The small burdens of life are in fact sometimes more difficult than the major crises. We all show up for the funeral. But we forget the birthday, the weekly call, or the holiday visit. Life is always rushing at us, and while we can rouse ourselves for the big…

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Do People Change?

Recently an experiment involving almost 20,000 people showed that we consistently acknowledge that we have changed in the past but underestimate how much we will change in the future. The music the subjects thought they would love forever changed, and sometimes their taste in food as well as ingrained habits and ideas. We believe we will be the same tomorrow as today, but actually we change a good deal. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that the only person who understood him was his tailor, since his tailor measured him anew each time they met. If we are wise, we will…

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Lodestar Love

The Torah teaches us what to value, sometimes by faithfulness and sometimes by forsakenness. Despite many trials and difficulties, Ruth remains faithful to Naomi and through that faith, reconstructs their lives and paves the way for the coming of the Messiah. Samson should treasure his people and God, yet forsakes both for ego that struts for an hour on the stage before he is reminded of his destiny. Moses remains faithful and fulfills his mission. Saul is betrayed by his own insecurity and uncertainty, forsakes his calling and fails as King of Israel. The Torah’s message is clear: do not…

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Loving and Being Loved

What is the meaning of the ‘badeken’ — veiling the bride before the wedding ceremony? Some associate it with Rebecca, who upon meeting her future husband Isaac, placed a veil over her face. Others, perhaps more fancifully, associate it with Jacob and Leah, since Jacob intended to marry Rachel and woke up to her older sister. The first time I conducted a wedding however, a deeper meaning to the veiling ceremony seemed clear to me. The Kotzker Rebbe once sharply rebuked his disciples — “Masks! Where are your faces?” He was pointing out that we all wear masks, or veils…

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The Key to the Treasure

In his short story “Scheherazade,” novelist John Barth writes that “the key to the treasure is the treasure.” I think about this sometimes when I listen to the Torah reader on Shabbat. The ability to read an ancient text seems as great a gift as the meaning itself. For a tradition to remain accessible after thousands of years is itself an extraordinary blessing. We hold the key, and holding it is itself a treasure. The Rabbis understood and dramatized this lesson. We are told that when the ancient Temple was burning the Cohanim climbed to the roof and threw the…

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The Hidden Image

Do you know the legend of the angels and the Divine image? A group of angels heard that God intended to create human beings in God’s own likeness, and they thought human beings unworthy. So they plotted to hide the Image. One proposed a mountaintop, but another angel pointed out that human beings climb, and would discover it. Another suggested at the bottom of the ocean, but here too there was a flaw in the plan – human beings are naturally curious about the world, and would descend and find the Image even at the ocean’s floor. Finally the shrewdest…

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When The Light Goes Out

In the past week very heavy winds struck Los Angeles, and in our chapel a window broke and the Ner Tamid came crashing down. Ner Tamid is usually translated as “eternal light” and it is supposed to be perpetually lit as inspired by the menorah in the ancient Temple, and some say, as a reminder of God’s eternal presence. So what happens when such a light is extinguished? In our chapel, what happened was that the children who witnessed it continued their service and our prayer minyan continues morning and evening each day while it is being repaired. The light…

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Why Should Secular Jews Give To Jewish Causes?

Recently I was asked what I would say to a secular Jew who wondered why he should donate to Jewish causes. This was my answer:If you travel throughout the United States, indeed throughout the world, you will see that Jews have given vast sums to cultivate the arts, sciences, medical research and so forth. The amount given is wildly disproportionate to our very small numbers. Why? Because centuries of Jewish teaching have implanted in our spiritual DNA the necessity of supporting such causes. Now you – the secular Jew – may not believe in the teachings that shaped you. Nonetheless,…

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Three Extraordinary Lives: Kirk Douglas, Abe Zarem, & Max Webb

The rabbis teach that Abraham was the first who had the merit of looking old. Notice the word — “merit.” It was considered, by our tradition, a good thing; it meant you had lived and learned. We compliment people by saying, “You look so young!” Accomplishment and wisdom counted more to our ancestors than vitality; innocence was not as valued as experience. For our tradition, what lay before you was not as important as what was behind you. Recently in my synagogue, we celebrated three remarkable individuals who reached their 100th birthdays. One hundred years is a long time when…

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Becoming Who You Are

Many Hasidic passages teach that true worship of God comes from inside oneself. Rabbi Bunim commenting on a passage in the Talmud, said that if one wishes to be stringent solely because his father was stringent, he is not allowed to do so. Authenticity and not imitation is the standard of devotion. If that is so, what do we do with the many teachings that are inheritances? Surely most of Judaism is what we learn from others, not what we arrive at ourselves. First we must distinguish between commandments, which need not originate with oneself, and practices which are outgrowths…

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Why Elijah – And When?

Why do we open the door for Elijah at the Passover Seder? In the Bible, Elijah does not die (he goes up to heaven in a chariot – see 2 Kings, chapter 2). Therefore he is the prophet our tradition assumes will return to announce the coming of the Messiah. The cup of Elijah stands on the table because of an unresolved Talmudic dispute over whether there should be four or five cups of wine at the Seder table. We use four. If Elijah drinks, we learn that five is the correct answer. The Rabbis teach that when Elijah comes…

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Soul Food

Is it strange to say that Jews don’t read the Bible? We study the Torah, of course, but for many that is an enterprise confined to synagogue. So we read the five books, and the haftaroth, which are passages from the historical and prophetic writings. But even the books that are part of the liturgical calendar — Jonah, Esther, Ecclesiastes and so forth, are too often neglected. But what riches! To read the book of Job is to understand why it is a touchstone for sufferers throughout the generations. Its eloquence and anger speak for every person in pain. Its arguments…

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The Door To Your Heart

Everyone knows that the conditions of life make a huge difference to its quality. If you are hungry, or sick, or sad over loss, it is much harder to feel that life is as good as when your needs are met. But we also know that sometimes a shift in attitude can make a dramatic difference. And a wise, loving word can help us see things in a new light. Rabbi Aryeh Levin was called the holy man of Jerusalem. He spent his adult life visiting prisoners of all sorts, bringing them food, learning and comfort. Once after Passover some…

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Trash Heap and Treasure

When I ran a library I often had the experience of pulling a book from the shelf, out of idle curiosity, only to discover that no one had looked at that book for many years. Sometimes, as I began to leaf through it I discovered treasures. In the spirit of the marvelous site, things that seemed moribund sprung to life and made a difference. Such experiences remind me of the mania for preservation that drives the Jewish people. Why do we continually tend vast gardens of old learning? In part because one never knows when a comment, an insight or interpretation, will…

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Five Minutes Longer

In years of watching people accomplish remarkable things, I have seen affirmed what my father told me when I was a child – the secret of success is stamina. It is wonderful to have gifts, but I have known extravagantly gifted people who cannot lift their legs out of the mud. There are many explanations for the greatness of Moses, but surely central is that for forty years, each day, he lifted the burden of a people on his shoulders and bore them through the desert. Think of the mornings he arose and wished to cast off the task; he…

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What You Have – Who You Are

It is common to take pride in possessions, but perhaps that is why the Jewish people started out with nothing, as slaves. For the essence of Judaism is not possession but action. We are taught to take pride not in what we have but who we are. The goods of this world move from person to person, but our attributes shape our essence. The great English essayist Hazlitt says the following in his piece “On Personal Identity”: “I have the love of power, but not of property. I should like to be able to outstrip a greyhound in speed; but…

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Tell Me A Story

Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights tells stories that keep her alive. So long as the king is enchanted by what comes next, night after night, he will ensure her safety. When contemplating the astonishing survival of the Jewish people I sometimes think of Scheherazade. There is a great deal of emphasis on Jewish law and interpretation and text and ritual. But history — the Jewish story — is an ever branching tree that has flourished for thousands of years. “And you shall tell your children” we are admonished over and over again. Our story sustains us. The story is always changing….

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Older and Wiser?

When I was young I made an astonishing discovery about Jewish daily prayer. Each morning service had a confessional. I remember wondering, do we really sin each day? When I paid attention to my own conduct and that of my classmates, I realized the prescience of the tradition. We hit each other, hurt each other and often said cruel things. We were kids. The confessional gave us a moment in each service to think about what we had done and to face up to it before God. But I do remember thinking – surely when I get older I will…

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Marking Time

Before the final plague, the Torah sets out the calendar, announcing the first month in Spring. In slavery there is no distinction between days; each is a grueling succession of labor and harshness. But to be free means to mark time and shape it. At the very beginning of our journey as a people, God teaches us to create sacred time. The desert may seem eternally the same, but the days themselves will not be. We count by the moon, which changes, waxing and waning, hinting at the fullness to come. “This is the first month to you (Ex. 12:2).”…

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The Laughing Philosopher

Each of us has witnessed things that if unshared, the world will never know. I would like to tell you of a remarkable event I once saw, so that the image will live on. There is a custom in Israel on Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, for children, sometimes carried on the shoulders of their parents, to walk around the streets with plastic hammers, bopping people on the head. I don’t know its origin, but everyone who has been there has witnessed the glee. Many years ago on this day I was walking on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and I spotted…

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A Life Of Balance

Spirituality in modern teachings often emphasizes self-actualization. As a unique human being, you are called to develop your potential, your spark of godliness. The second side of this is the call of the ‘other.’A truly ethical life, in this view, is lived less by developing your own capacities than by devoting yourself to developing the capacities of other people. Sometimes the two are made into one – how do you awaken your own gifts? Through giving to others. While that is partly true, the simple solution is too simple. There are areas of cultivation that require solitude and even selfishness….

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Poetry Of Our People

I spent my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. There I studied literature and wrote a letter to my parents about how deeply I was enamored of the great British poets – Wordsworth, Burns, Byron and others. I will never forget my father’s reply. He told me he was glad I was getting so much out of the year. But then he reminded me that English literature became the literature of the world “on the backs of British soldiers.” Jews, he wrote, had poets but no armies; I should not neglect Yehuda Halevy and Ibn Gabirol and Bialik and Tzernikovsky. For…

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What Makes A Congregation

In the book of Numbers, we are told that silver trumpets will summon the congregation and set the camps to march (10:2). In a beautiful comment, Rabbi Soloveitchik delineates the difference: “An encampment is created out of a desire for self-defense and thrives on fear. A Congregation is fashioned out of longing for the realization of an exalted moral idea and thrives on love.” People and nations often band together out of fear. But closeness that has roots in fear will dissolve when the threat passes. More than that, there is often a residual shame in caring for one another…

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5 Spiritual New Year’s Resolutions

The best resolutions are elastic—they cannot be broken with a single act. If you swear never to touch red meat, one burger ruins the resolution. If, on the other hand, you pledge to eat healthier food, each day you have a chance to fulfill the resolution anew. Below are five elastic spiritual resolutions that can carry you throughout the year. 1. Engage with people more than pixels. Looking at a phone is quick and undemanding. Texting is easier than talking—it gives you intimacy without danger. This year, resolve to spend more time looking into someone’s eyes when you communicate with…

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