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May


What Is Holiness?


The Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh, which also means separate. In some sense the realm of the holy is the realm set apart – the Sabbath that is kadosh from the week, or the couple bound in kiddushin, the rites of marriage, sharing a unique intimacy. Yet holiness cannot be fully separate. For we are told God is kadosh and God is both above all and yet in all; and we too are told to be kadosh, to attain the state of both distance and closeness, separation and embrace. Holiness involves goodness – one cannot be holy without being…

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Jewish Narcissism


We remember Narcissus as a self loving fool who is drowned in a pool of his own reflection. We don’t always recall the fuller myth: that he rejected Eros, who in fury cursed him. The seer Tiresias predicted his fate – Narcissus would die if he came to know himself. Greek literature teaches the double edged nature of being deeply acquainted with one’s own character. Despite the ancient Delphic admonition to know oneself, self knowledge is not always attractive or easy. Goethe wrote, “Know myself? If I knew myself I would run away.” There are part of ourselves that are not easy…

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The Right To Be Enchanted


A sharp statement that I believe was made by the children’s writer Joan Aiken: “Anyone who does not read to their children doesn’t deserve to have them.” She may be overstating the point, but not by much. One of the most beautiful and binding experience one can have with a child is to read to her or to him, especially at bedtime. It is a sacred moment, without phones or screens, just the sound of a voice telling a story. Bedtime stories, like bedtime prayers, spur the soul. They enrich the child’s imagination and remind them not only of the lives…

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April


Argue, But Listen


We live in a time of mutual incomprehension. People do not argue with one another as much as serially lecture each other. We listen to anticipate an answer, not to comprehend. Victory has become more urgent than understanding. Passover reminds us of the practice of genuine discussion. We ask questions, we posit different types of people, recount and try to learn from a story we think we already know. We eat strange foods in part because changing routine is a powerful way of looking anew at the world. We recall our history to teach us that however differently we may…

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Argue, But Listen


We live in a time of mutual incomprehension. People do not argue with one another as much as serially lecture each other. We listen to anticipate an answer, not to comprehend. Victory has become more urgent than understanding. Passover reminds us of the practice of genuine discussion. We ask questions, we posit different types of people, recount and try to learn from a story we think we already know. We eat strange foods in part because changing routine is a powerful way of looking anew at the world. We recall our history to teach us that however differently we may think…

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When The Messiah Comes


Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the Messiah in Jewish teaching. In the bible Elijah does not die – he is carried off to heaven in a chariot – and so the tradition expected his return. We anticipate Elijah’s arrival most eagerly at certain times: at the end of Shabbat, the end of Yom Kippur, at a brit milah and at the Passover Seder. Although there are specific reasons for each of the four times, there is also a general reason. All four times are also times when families traditionally gather together. We often hear that…

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Invisible Work


While traveling in Southeast Asia I learned that certain cultures refer to housework as “invisible work” because if it is done you cannot see it. Only if it is undone do you realize it is needed. Entropy operates in our daily lives. Left alone, my house will get dirty. As we all know, it never seems to get spontaneously clean. The job of maintaining our environment takes a lot of work. At no time do we realize this more vividly than at Passover. Passover is the decathlon of cleaning. It is hard to believe all the crevices and nooks that…

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Who Is God?


When you were two years old could you imagine what it was to be an adult? Not only could you not imagine it, but you didn’t understand what it was that you could not imagine. In the Jewish tradition, the distance between Divine and human is far greater than between a two year old and an adult.   What do we mean when we speak of God? We speak of something far beyond anything we know or ever can know. Invoking God requires submission of the intellect, humility before an infinite whose garment hem the greatest spirits barely brush. As…

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March


Is That Clear?


Every intellectual or academic discipline has its apostles of obscurity. There are novels which cannot be read without a teacher or a guidebook. Much modern poetry defeats the most resolute attempt to unravel its enigmas. And even when pundits try to make things clear, we often feel them the way Byron did when commenting on the poet Coleridge’s account of German philosophy: “Explaining metaphysics to the nation/ I wish he would explain his explanation.”   A great deal of Jewish commentary is devoted to explaining the explanation. The Talmud explains the Mishna. Rashi explains the Talmud. Later commentators explain Rashi….

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How Old Are You?


When the famed writer Isaac Bashevis Singer reached the age of sixty, he told his friend he knew he would live to 120. “How can you be so sure?” his friend asked. “Because” explained Singer, “when I went for my checkup my doctor told me I was half dead.” Many cultures discuss what is appropriate to each age. 30 is the age of strength in the Talmud, the age of courting according to Greek thinker Solon, the age when Confucius ‘planted his feet firm on the ground.’ At sixty, the age of Singer’s quip, the Talmud says he is becoming…

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