Off the Pulpit


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This Seder Is Like The First

The Passover Seder’s “Four Questions” are a hit in most Jewish households. It is the opportunity to nudge the youngest child forward, cajoling them to sing Mah Nishtana, leading everyone in familiar song. But if we analyze the text, there is only one question being asked:    When we sit down to Passover seders, we read about the oppression in Egypt and try to imagine ourselves as enslaved. We often forget that we are celebrating a holiday first celebrated before liberation.   The very first night of Pesach the Israelites were anxious and scared and knew that what was happening…

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Ancient Wisdom For A Modern Pandemic

The sin of the golden calf is very strange. The Israelites thought that Moses would be on the mountain for forty days and he did not come down until a day later, on the forty-first. In that single day they built and worshipped the calf.   Imagine the scene. Did no one say — “Wait, maybe he was delayed! Maybe he took a nap, or found the climbing difficult, or stopped for coffee!” (We have not found archeological remains of Starbucks, but one never knows.) The instant response could only have been due to one thing — panic. And panic…

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Wary But Joyful

In this unsettling time, it is helpful to remember that Judaism has faced contagions and dangers before, and our sages have reacted wisely. Perhaps best known is the decree of the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who, during the cholera epidemic of 1848, not only permitted but demanded that his congregants eat on Yom Kippur, and he did not exempt himself.   Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is of paramount importance. The first word reminds us of pikayach, which means to have one’s eyes open. So, although some reactions may be more than is required, the possibility of saving lives necessitates…

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Learning From The Animals

In Myanmar they tell a story about horses. The story goes that horses were originally created without teeth. The cow has teeth only on the bottom and water buffaloes only have teeth on the top. Originally they both had full sets of teeth. The poor horse came to the cow and said, “Look, you have top and bottom teeth and I have none. Would you consider giving me your top teeth so we can at least both have some?” The cow good-naturedly agreed. The horse then went to the water buffalo and asked that he share his bottom teeth. The…

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Did You Build That?

We all struggle between the impulse to assume we are self-made and that we are indebted to others. Both of course are true: without effort and hard work it is impossible to accomplish much in this world. Yet without all the structures, that existed before we came into this world, societal and environmental, we could have done nothing. To believe you are self-made is an act of blithe arrogance; yet to believe you do not deserve credit for your accomplishments is to blunt the motivation that moves society forward.   Judaism’s answer is gratitude coupled with responsibility – we are…

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Power Play

Several years ago, I pointed out to my congregation that at our seders we were the Egyptians. While we enacted the ritual and said the prayers, in most homes we were being served by those we hired. Obviously, it was not slavery, but we were the Egyptians in the sense that our moral character was determined by how we treated those over whom we had power. In Genesis 18:4 Abraham says, regarding the travelers visiting him, “Let a little water be fetched.” Why only a little water for tired, thirsty people? One astute commentator notes the key is “be fetched.”…

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True Mastery Means True Mercy

Most Jews are not aware, in a world of factory farmed and cruelly killed creatures, that kindness to animals is central to Judaism.    Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, not causing pain to any living thing, is even reflected in the Ten Commandments. We give animals a day of rest on the Sabbath as well. As the Psalm (36) states: “Man and beast You save O God. How precious is Your steadfast love.” Proverbs relates a test for the righteous: “A righteous person has regard for the life of his beast (12:10).”    This tradition persisted through Talmudic times and beyond. The…

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Loving the Gifted One

In the wake of a rising of anti-Semitism, one strategy is to emphasize the Jewish contribution to the world. The hope is that recognizing the many blessings Jews have brought to humanity will ameliorate some of the hatred. The list of benefits created by Jews, from the polio vaccine to the writings of Kafka, are sometimes triumphantly listed as though the mind of the hater can be changed by the qualities of the hated. Yet resentment of achievement is as likely as admiration of it.   A virus which is not spread by reason cannot be cured by reason. A…

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Want to Argue About It?

It is well known that Jews have a deep love of argument. If you disagree with this, you are just proving my point. The Talmud is many things, but one defensible definition is an extended argument. It contains wonderful phrases for argumentation, like raminhu, which means you are throwing two statements against each other, sometimes from the same Rabbi. In other words, Jews even love arguing with themselves. We started early; Abraham and Moses and Ezekiel and Samuel all question or argue with God, among many others in Jewish history. And from the Talmudic principle of Kal V’homer (a fortiori,…

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Redeeming One Another?

When I was a teenager, two strangers came to our home. They were Russian, and I learned that they visited to thank my parents, who had helped them escape from the Soviet Union. I have since learned many stories of Jews who helped other Jews, risked their own safety, smuggled goods in and people out, in an attempt to help.   Such benevolence is not new. In the 15th century, some 250 Portugese Jews captured at African seaports were sold as slaves throughout the kingdom of Alfonso V. The Jews of Lisbon formed a committee and through the beneficence of…

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