Off the Pulpit


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We Were Poets and We Were Young

How do we make the past come alive to a generation that did not live through it? Each person wishes their stories to live in the echoes of later generations. The 19th century English poet Flecker, addressing a poet who will read him 1,000 years later, wrote: “O friend unseen, unborn, unknown/ Student of our sweet English tongue/ Read out my words at night, alone/ I was a poet, I was young.” Judaism carries memory through words and through ritual. The voices of those who have lived before us survive in the faith they lived and shaped. We remember them…

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The Solidarity of Grief

I’ve often been asked to join a minyan, a quorum of ten. But I am never asked to join “so we can say Barchu” (a prayer only recited with a minyan) or “so we can do a full Amidah” (also done only with a minyan). It is invariably so someone can say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. The obvious reason is to come to the aid of one who grieves. Saying Kaddish is usually a more urgent emotional need than other prayers. However, we might also see it as a tribute to the one who has died. When we…

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A Hundred Times a Day

Jewish tradition bids us to offer a hundred blessings a day. This is not about the numbers; there is nothing magical about one hundred. The one who recited ninety-nine blessings is not spiritually derelict. The secret is not in the numbers, but in the underlying ideology of blessing. The mishna exhorts us to pray when we see lightning, mountains, deserts, the ocean, a long lost friend and myriad other things as well. Each category has its own formulated blessing, reminding us of the Author of all. This is not the enterprise of accumulating blessings; it is training in cultivating appreciation….

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A New Strategy

As different factions argue in modern times many strategies have been tried. There has been bullying, out-reasoning, ignoring, insulting, throwing data at one another, quoting authorities – you name it, every way of winning the argument has been tried. Strangely however, one thing that proved effective in the Talmud is neglected. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) says that the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the two great rabbinic schools, argued for years. A voice came from heaven and said that both houses were the word of the living God – that is, in great disputes, there is no solitary truth. However,…

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Purim Masks

Why do we dress up on Purim? Partly to share the delight of inhabiting another identity. The child can now be a queen, a wise man, a King, a knave. The story springs off the page and into pageant. We love play acting as an aid to imagination. But it may also be because hiding is a powerful way of revealing oneself.  Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” Revelation through disguise is part of the Purim message. Hamann pretended to be a faithful advisor to the king, and…

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Windows to the Soul

The Talmud teaches that one should not pray in a room without windows. According to Rav Kook, this is because prayer without a recognition of the outside world, one’s responsibilities and duties, is empty. Why should one choose to pray to God in a cramped, narrow corner, unrelated to the vast panorama of God’s world? The Talmud may also be making the reverse point: not that we look out, but that others must look in. To see someone lift a heart to God can be itself heartening. Knowing devotion exists can kindle our own devotion. Although we cannot be sure…

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Kindness and Closeness

Most people are courteous to those whom they barely know. We are gracious to the waiter, elevator operator, the bank teller. But character is judged on how we behave when it is difficult to be kind. In other words, how do we behave to those who are close? When two mitzvot are before us, one rare and the other commonplace, which comes first? We might think the rare one. But there is a Jewish legal principle: tadir u’sheano tadir, tadir kodem: the frequently observed mitzvah takes precedence. It is not difficult to be enthused about the rare and special. The…

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When the Israelites came to the red sea, it did not part. Even Moses’ entreaties to God could not get the seat to split. The Rabbis recount that one man, Nachshon Ben Amminadav, boldly leapt into the sea, and it parted. Like Curtis who flung himself into the breach in the Roman Senate, Nachshon proved that what mattered was the courage to act when others’ falter. There are always good reasons to hesitate. Considerations of prudence, of fairness, of deference hold us back. Psychologists tell us that the greater the number of people who might respond, the less likely any…

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What Are The Jews?

Although the Nazis branded Jews an inferior race, Jews are not exactly a race. After all, one can convert to Judaism and one cannot convert to be of a different race. Yet they have some characteristics in common. Hmmm. On the other hand, Jews aren’t exactly a religion. One isn’t born into a religion, and if tomorrow, I suddenly decided I didn’t believe anything taught by Judaism at all, I would still be a Jew. Again, hmmm. On the third hand, there are Jews of every skin color and from all corners of the world, so no single sweeping statement…

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The True Disciple

There is an old story about two students who studied with the same great Rabbi. After the Rabbi died, they separated and did not see each other for many years. One of them meticulously followed all he had learned from his teacher. The other developed his own interpretations as well, and in many matters diverged from what they had learned. After many years the two met. The first said to his former friend, “I don’t understand. We had such a magnificent mentor. Why didn’t you live as I have, and remain faithful to the teachings of our Master?” The second…

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