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November


Be the Parent You Needed


“As a mother comforts her child so will I comfort you (Is. 66:13).” Images of God as a mother and as a father do not only teach us something about God; they teach us something essential about ourselves.    There is no more important resource to create a good society than good parents. People who have early experiences of cruelty or absence or indifference from parents often carry the scars their entire life. As a Rabbi I have repeatedly seen adults blocked at fifty by what they experienced at five. The echo of a cruel comment caroms in the memory…

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Harmonies


By 1815 Beethoven had avoided society for many months, yet he agreed to play his 27th sonata at the behest of Antoine and Therese Apponyi. The orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall records the scene in his memoirs. The Embassy was filled with eminences of the day: Goethe, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others. Beethoven was almost completely deaf. Despite an enormous ear trumpet he could not hear the sounds of his own notes but heard them in his head and so began the sonata, composed a few months earlier, with deep feeling and expression. But the heating had thrown the sound of the…

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October


Why A Messiah?


What is the purpose of a Messiah? Let us remind ourselves again of an answer written in an era of intolerance and hatred, the middle ages, from a man whose family fled the Almohad persecutions in Spain and settled in Egypt: “The sages and prophets did not long for the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress…

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A Yizkor Message


On Yizkor we gather to remember the ones we miss. The ones who knew our world. The one who grasped the corkscrew twists special to your own soul. What we miss, and what we crave, is the intimacy that assures you in a world that spins no matter your wishes, that drives on heedless of your hopes, you are not alone. That person – parents, spouse, sibling, friend, lover – to whom you tossed your heart the way as children we played egg toss – catch this, but move with it and do not break it. That person held your…

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Hide And Seek


Many of the high points of the Jewish tradition depend upon the end of concealment. In the Torah, God was long hidden from humanity until Abraham managed to see the world as filled with God’s presence. At Sinai, the notion of ‘revelation’ presupposes that before, there was hiddenness. The approaching holiday of sukkah reminds us of this shadow side of Jewish understanding. The schach on the roof of the sukkah deliberately casts shadows on the floor, both revealing and concealing. The holiday follows on the heels of Yom Kippur, the time when we are supposed to bare our souls, seeking…

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God’s Prayer – And Ours


At the beginning of the Talmud, in tractate Berachot, there is a curious question — What is God’s prayer? The Rabbis answer that God prays, “May My mercy overcome My anger.” When our tradition speaks of God, it is also teaching something about humanity. For this is a version of our Yom Kippur prayer. No individual is composed entirely of mercy, or of kindness, or of anger, or of impatience. Experience has taught us that we cannot eradicate deep parts of ourselves and make them vanish as if they never existed. What we can do is encourage other parts until…

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September


Ignorance and Wisdom


On Rosh Hashanah, we read verses of sovereignty, memory and music – the shofar blast. Each is a pastiche of biblical verses that teaches lessons of psychology and soul. Sovereignty is not only about God but about us. By emphasizing God’s majesty it reminds us that each human being is frail and foolish, but still loved and unique. And it recalls us to the reality that there are powerful ethical expectations for people in this world. We will fall short of course, but we are obligated to keep trying. The verses of memory speak to the fear of being forgotten….

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Ignorance and Wisdom


In 1913, British novelist E.C. Bentley wrote a mystery called “Trent’s Last Case.” It became a classic not only for the sparkling writing, but because the detective observes meticulously, reasons brilliantly – and comes to the exact wrong conclusion. It is a marvelous lesson in intellectual humility. As recently as 2002, scientists asked a large number of people how such everyday things as zippers, piano keys and bicycles actually work. People were robustly confident that they knew – and then proved abysmally ignorant. We know far less about the world than we assume, and our reasoning is often flawed. All…

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Courts of Love


In medieval England and France, there were courts of love. They legislated on questions regarding love, passed sentence on lovers who were in the wrong, and generally tried to establish a system of jurisprudence to keep love disputes from the regular courts. Charles the IV established his court on Valentine’s Day of 1400 by having a panel of women select the judges based on oral recitation or examples of poetry; others were composed of married women or widows themselves. One man who renounced his vows to a lady only to marry a woman of ‘higher station’ had to pay his…

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The Emotions of Elul


This week began the month of Elul, a time of introspection and self-appraisal. These are not entirely the same tasks. Introspection helps us understand our own motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Self-appraisal is concerned with our actions and how they affect other people. These are naturally intertwined, since our actions spring from within. Yet it is remarkable how often what we do is not taken as intended. We say things that are misunderstood, gestures of tenderness that seem callous, help experienced as interference, restraint interpreted as indifference. We need to explore why we do unkind things, and also why we sometimes…

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