Off the Pulpit


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Yom Kippur Connections

When I was a child and left a school to move to another city, there was a good chance that I would not see my schoolmates again. There was no social media and every lived in their own city and their own world. Now people can be in touch with almost everyone with whom they crossed paths. We are closer to the population of our own pasts than was imaginable even two decades ago. Yet with all the potential closeness to others, we seem farther from ourselves. Yom Kippur is a time to rediscover and renew one’s own soul. It…

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Listen To This!

The mitzvah is not to blow the shofar, but to listen to it. That may be because only one person can blow and many listen, but I would like to think that it is teaching the Jewish version of why we have one mouth but two ears. Because as much as we need to say things, we need to hear things even more. We live in a culture that prizes self-expression. There are classes in creative writing, journaling, speaking, all the ways in which we can bring forth what is inside of us. But few and far between are those…

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God and Gershwin

On Shabbat morning in synagogue I realized that the Gershwin lyric: “The Rockies may tumble/ Gibraltar may crumble/ they’re only made of clay/ but our love is here to stay” had a biblical root. Because we read in the Haftorah from Isaiah 54:10: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you.” That got me to thinking anew how many are unaware of the constant theme in Judaism of God’s love. My first book, over thirty years ago, was called “The Healer of Shattered Hearts” and explored this theme, and…

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Wounding and Forgiving

Right before Yom Kippur two women who have had a long standing fight see one another in the synagogue. One says: “You know, it is a new year. It is time to put an end to the bickering and fighting. I want you to know that in the new year I wish for you everything you wish for me.” And the second woman says, “So, you are starting up with me again!” Elul is the month of repentance but also a time of forgiveness. We know we are supposed to approach others and ask for forgiveness but what if we…

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A Typical Jew?

The sinew of paradox runs through Jewish history. Were Jews and gentiles separate in the Middle Ages? Well yes, but there are also rules about hiring a gentile wet nurse on the sabbath which suggests a degree of intimacy between the two that would shock casual assumptions. Were Jews pious? Well yes, except that from ancient times until today we find innumerable examples of assimilation and indifference and heresy. Jews are often thought of as powerless in their history, but in many cases they exerted great power, and spanned the range from unfathomable persecution to acceptance and security. To speak…

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Why I Love Mystery Novels

From the moment I read my first Agatha Christie and my mother gave me a John MacDonald, I’ve been hooked on mysteries. From Holmes to Bosch, I read classic, golden age mysteries, international mysteries, noir, psychological puzzles, police procedurals, spy novels. I’ve even contributed an essay or two to compendiums about mystery literature. There are established reasons of course: such books have a clear plot and strongly defined characters; they suggest there are solutions in the world and there is ultimate justice (at least, most of them do.) But lately I’ve come to believe there is another reason why I,…

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Breaking the Glass

Before the groom steps on a glass to conclude the wedding ceremony, there is a tradition of reciting part of the 137th Psalm, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem…” The most immediate explanation of this is that stepping on the glass commemorates the tragedies of Jewish history, particularly the destruction of the Temple. So as we mark the destruction and exile, we promise not to forget. On a more subtle level is the reality that to fall in love is not only to fall in love with the person, but to love things in the world together. Even as they…

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Reason and Passion

The Spanish existentialist philosopher Miguel De Unamuno once explained the difference between conventional philosophy and existentialism by reworking the classical syllogism. Students in logic are taught that Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal. But the existentialist says: I am a man; all men are mortal. Therefore, I will die. The first is a conclusion of logic. The second is of ultimate concern to me. Of course how we reason is not separate from how we feel. Yet the abstract analysis of problems does not always address the single, haunted cry of the individual in…

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Toothpaste and Travel

In my house growing up we only used used Crest toothpaste. That may seem a negligible datum, but in fact it shaped my childhood. I learned that no other toothpaste was used by smart, responsible people. When I visited another child’s house and saw Colgate, or one of the unserious toothpastes like Ultrabright (the very name suggests frivolity) I knew those parents were not as wise as my own. The day I realized that one could be as kind and as smart as my mother and use Pepsodent, my world changed. And that, my friends, is the point of travel….

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Laughter and Love

In years of interviewing Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, a few patterns have recurred. One of the questions I ask is — if your best friend were sitting here, what would she or he say about you? And by far the most common single answer, surprisingly, is, “I’m funny.” Now we have to assume that not every 13 year old is a budding Seinfeld. But the deeper implication of that answer is that laughter is often the glue that binds people together, and shows them they share a sensibility. It is a genuine indication of friendship when people laugh about…

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