Off the Pulpit


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A Final Musing, With Thanks

Thirty years ago, I began publishing 200-word columns, first in print in the NY Jewish Week and then online. In 2004, an early collection of them was published by Behrman House called “Floating Takes Faith.” Now as I step down as Senior Rabbi of Sinai, it is time to bring this column, having written some 1,500 of them, to an end. From the beginning, I aimed at the refrigerator. Perhaps this or that musing would be stuck on the door as a helpful thought. If this column gets pasted to a refrigerator – or a computer, or a bathroom mirror…

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What Our Adversaries Teach

Right before Moses strikes the rock, the sin that will prevent him from entering the land of Israel, he yells at the people: “Listen now, rebels (hamorim)” [Num. 20:10]. Yet that same word, morim, can mean “teachers.” Our antagonists can also be our teachers. The Rabbis have long taught what psychologists advise as well: When someone irritates you, annoys you, infuriates you, there is a lesson in that experience. We are often resistant to learning from people we don’t like or statements we find oppositional. But sometimes the measure of our resistance is also a measure of the importance of…

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Thoughts and Prayers

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” What can this mean in the wake of something horrible? If prayer is a way of changing the world, it is too late. What good can prayers do the victims now? The 17th-century Rabbi Leon de Modena asked us to imagine watching a man pull his boat to shore. If you were confused, you might think that he was really pulling the shore to his boat. People have much the same confusion about prayer: Some believe that you are pulling God closer to you. But in fact, heartfelt prayer pulls you closer to…

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Poets and Armies

I spent my junior year of college at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. There I studied English and Scottish literature and wrote a letter home to my parents about how I had fallen in love with the poetry of Byron and Burns and Wordsworth and the canon of literature I was learning. My father wrote back a beautiful letter that I have sadly lost. But I remember his saying that, pleased as he was that I had discovered the great poets, “Remember that English poetry became the poetry of the world on the backs of British soldiers. We too…

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75 Years of Home

The Torah begins with the letter bet (ב‎), the same letter that begins bayit in Hebrew, home. Some have taken this as a signal – here is a home in the Torah. Yet it is an uneasy home, full of wandering, perplexity and challenge. Such unease is part of the true nature of home. Commenting on the phrase ger toshav, “stranger-resident,” the Maggid of Dubno explains we should all feel both comfortable in the world and out of place in it, like residents and like strangers. Echoing this insight is the philosopher Adorno: “The highest form of morality is not…

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The Scars to Prove It

“You shall arise as a lion each morning to do the will of your Creator.” That stirring sentence opens the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law. It reminds us that at the heart of our tradition is the conviction that there are things worth fighting for. We all cherish peace, but we know that there will always be battles for ideals that are noble, and everyone of conscience must be prepared for such fights. In Alan Paton’s book, “Ah, But your Land is Beautiful,” there is a conversation between two men who risked their lives fighting for racial justice…

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Old and Young

The ancient world was long ago, but it was not ancient. Rather, it was when the world was very young. We are the old ones hurtling toward the encroaching end, not the bright beginning, of human history. In his foreword to “Athens and Jerusalem,” philosopher Lev Shestov writes “a foreword is basically always a post-word.” We write a foreword after finishing; the old world is young, and time is flooded with paradox. The Newtonian world was a straight arrow world, with the past remaining firmly in the past, and the future unfolding like the credits at the opening of a…

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The Telling

In “The Arabian Nights,” Scheherazade saves her own life by weaving so entrancing a tale that the Sultan keeps her alive night after night to hear the next chapter. By our stories we live. Haggadah means “telling.” On Passover night, we tell the story. As the writer Philip Pullman said, “Thou shalt not’ might reach the head but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav said that most people tell stories to put others to sleep, but his stories are to wake people up. The Jewish people tell stories to rouse our souls…

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In Every Generation

From the villages of Eastern Europe comes an old, classic joke. Shmuel comes in the door with a sad face, telling Esther that the Czar has decreed that every Jew must convert and become Christian. “What shall we do?” cries Esther. “I don’t think we have a choice,” laments Shmuel, “we have to convert.” The next day, Shmuel comes in the door with joy shining in his face. “Esther! Esther! Guess what – the decree has been reversed. We don’t have to be Christians anymore!” Esther gives Shmuel a rueful look. “That’s wonderful, but can we wait to convert back…

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Creation, Revelation, Redemption

Jewish tradition is built around three axes: Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. Traditionally, these have been seen as making the world, giving the Torah and coming of the Messiah. Each also tells us something about our attitude and conduct along the way. Creation reminds us that we are stewards of the garden. The Rabbis explain that God said after creation, if we destroy this place there will be none to restore it after us. The fate of life on this earth is largely in our hands. Revelation teaches the Jewish people the responsibility of relationship and the moral order. Through law…

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