Off the Pulpit


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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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He Didn’t Lie!

Two stories comment on one another. Once R. Levi Yizkhak of Berditchev, known as “the lover of Israel,” saw a man smoking on Yom Kippur. He said, “You must not have realized that today is Yom Kippur.” “No,” the man responded, “I know it is Yom Kippur.” “Then,” said the Rebbe, “you must not have realized that it is forbidden to smoke on Yom Kippur.” “No,” said the man, “I know it is forbidden.” The Rebbe turned to the heavens and said, “See how good are Your people, O God. Even though I found him smoking on Yom Kippur, he…

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Eternity in Every Instant

Heschel used to tell the story of the boy in cheder who was reading the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Year after year they read the story, yet each time this boy was frightened – what if Isaac is hurt? The other students made fun of him – after all, they said, you know how it ends, we read it before! But the teacher said no, this student is reading it properly, because the Torah should be happening anew every time. To be part of the Jewish tradition is to view time differently. Events that happened in…

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Complaining About Miracles

As soon as the people leave Egypt, they begin to complain. Moses, frustrated, asks “Why do you try the Lord?” The word for “try” is “tenasun” which is Hebrew has the same two letters, nun and samach, that spell “nes” or miracle. Moses is reminding the people that they just experienced an astounding miracle, and they are turning it into a complaint. In our own day we understand the dynamic. When the pandemic first broke out people prayed for a vaccine. Miraculously the vaccines were created and suddenly, the distribution, availability – indeed the very speed with which they were created – has for…

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When Nothing Goes Right

Every age brings its difficulties. It is true that with all the advantages of our age, it can still seem as if everything is going wrong. It may or may not help to know that this is not a new sentiment. From the beginning of time people sat themselves by the fireside and said, “Absolutely nothing worked for me today.” If nothing is going your way, the least others can do is offer sympathy and company. You aren’t alone: Abraham Ibn Ezra, famed biblical commentator and poet from 12th century Spain, lamented: If I made shrouds No one would ever…

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