Off the Pulpit


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The Last Paper

For thirty years I have been writing a “Musings” column of roughly two hundred words each week for The Jewish Week. In time these columns went out electronically as well, titled “Off The Pulpit” and now appear in the Times of Israel. The Jewish Week is going digital, so this will be the final column to appear in an actual “paper.” This week leads up to Tisha B’av. (Wait, there is a connection here!) The destruction of the Temple forced the Jews to transcend the physical message. We had to contend with the destruction of our central structure and recognize…

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You Are Not Your Group

The Rabbis ask — why is God said to love the righteous? Because their worth is due neither to their heritage nor to their family. Not anyone, they goes on to explain, can be a Priest in the Temple or a Levite, but anyone, Jewish or not Jewish, can be righteous and therefore loved by God (Num R. 8:2). This may be the crucial Jewish teaching for our time. The deep premise of identity politics is that your group defines you. While Judaism certainly understands that being a Jew is part of what makes us who we are, it is…

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The Holy Fire

In December 1950, a Polish construction worker unearthing the foundations of a building found a buried cannister. Miraculously, the legacy of a great spirit was preserved in that improbable vessel. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, who did not survive the war, posthumously gave his teachings to our world. Known as the Esh Kodesh, Holy Fire, his is a mystical and complex Torah. They are lessons clearly wrung from the depths of suffering. As Nehemiah Polen writes, “That he did not allow himself to be crushed by the events of the war was surely his greatest…

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Both Sides Now

This I believe: You can combat the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic elements in Black Lives Matter and still fight side by side with the black community against racism. You can be a staunch Republican and still believe that most Democrats are neither foolish nor unAmerican. You can be a staunch Democrat and still believe that most Republicans are neither cruel nor narrow. You can be a devout atheist and still be convinced that religious people can be both informed and honest. You can be a devout believer and still be convinced that atheists can be both moral and deep. You can…

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The New Wilderness

Throughout the desert, the Israelites rebel, quarrel and fight. They demand meat, have fond (and false) memories of Egypt, seek to usurp the leadership of Moses and demonstrate repeated ingratitude to God. To a reader who comes to the story for the first time, it can often seem that Berthold Brecht’s quip about unsatisfactory government, that one should dissolve the people and elect another, is the only solution. Indeed, God proposes it more than once. In experiencing the long days of the pandemic however, we can perhaps develop more sympathy with the situation of our forebearers. For a difficult, prolonged…

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Fall, Fail, Rise

David had the strength to defeat Goliath. Yet he had moments of despair, as expressed in the Psalms “I am worn out calling for help” (Ps. 69:3). Jeremiah was a prophet of legendary power and will, but he called out “Oh, that I had a refuge in the wilderness that I might leave and go away from the people” (Jer. 9:2). Elijah fought with the Priests of Baal and defeated them. Yet he cries to God: “I have had enough, O Lord, take my life.” (1Kings 19:4). If you have low moments in this difficult time, you are not alone….

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Against Anger

In an angry age, may we say a word against anger? “Every person who becomes angry, even if a sage, his wisdom departs from him. If he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. (Pes. 66b).” There are many reasons to be angry in this world, and to feel anger at injustice is a natural and salutary thing. But to act in anger or to express yourself when angry is far more likely to be destructive than productive. Expressing anger rarely quenches it – it generally increases it. As the old saying has it, the only people who hear…

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A Hopeful Note

“To gather the congregation you shall blow tekiah (summons) and not truah (alarm)” (Num. 10:7). There are many ways to unite people. One is to frighten them. When pointed at a common enemy, people tend to gather in frightened solidarity. The Torah teaches in this week’s reading that the proper way is through summoning people to what is good and right rather than scaring them about what is wrong and bad. Gatherings of hope are better than gatherings of fear. Unity from love is greater than unity from hate. Bringing people with the sound of tekiah is the way to…

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A Lesson From Rabbi Abbahu

How important was respect for our Sages? The Talmud discusses whether one can carry a lit candle on the Sabbath. In Talmudic times of course, without a candle the night was entirely dark. It relates that when Rabbi Abbahu was with Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi, he would carry a candle, but when he was with Rabbi Johanan, he would not (Yebamot 14a). Explaining the difference, we are told that Rabbi Abbahu would act in accordance with the beliefs of his colleagues. Although he shared Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi’s belief that it was permitted, out of respect for Rabbi Johanan, when…

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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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