Off the Pulpit


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Both Sides Now

This I believe: You can combat the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic elements in Black Lives Matter and still fight side by side with the black community against racism. You can be a staunch Republican and still believe that most Democrats are neither foolish nor unAmerican. You can be a staunch Democrat and still believe that most Republicans are neither cruel nor narrow. You can be a devout atheist and still be convinced that religious people can be both informed and honest. You can be a devout believer and still be convinced that atheists can be both moral and deep. You can…

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The New Wilderness

Throughout the desert, the Israelites rebel, quarrel and fight. They demand meat, have fond (and false) memories of Egypt, seek to usurp the leadership of Moses and demonstrate repeated ingratitude to God. To a reader who comes to the story for the first time, it can often seem that Berthold Brecht’s quip about unsatisfactory government, that one should dissolve the people and elect another, is the only solution. Indeed, God proposes it more than once. In experiencing the long days of the pandemic however, we can perhaps develop more sympathy with the situation of our forebearers. For a difficult, prolonged…

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Fall, Fail, Rise

David had the strength to defeat Goliath. Yet he had moments of despair, as expressed in the Psalms “I am worn out calling for help” (Ps. 69:3). Jeremiah was a prophet of legendary power and will, but he called out “Oh, that I had a refuge in the wilderness that I might leave and go away from the people” (Jer. 9:2). Elijah fought with the Priests of Baal and defeated them. Yet he cries to God: “I have had enough, O Lord, take my life.” (1Kings 19:4). If you have low moments in this difficult time, you are not alone….

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Against Anger

In an angry age, may we say a word against anger? “Every person who becomes angry, even if a sage, his wisdom departs from him. If he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. (Pes. 66b).” There are many reasons to be angry in this world, and to feel anger at injustice is a natural and salutary thing. But to act in anger or to express yourself when angry is far more likely to be destructive than productive. Expressing anger rarely quenches it – it generally increases it. As the old saying has it, the only people who hear…

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A Hopeful Note

“To gather the congregation you shall blow tekiah (summons) and not truah (alarm)” (Num. 10:7). There are many ways to unite people. One is to frighten them. When pointed at a common enemy, people tend to gather in frightened solidarity. The Torah teaches in this week’s reading that the proper way is through summoning people to what is good and right rather than scaring them about what is wrong and bad. Gatherings of hope are better than gatherings of fear. Unity from love is greater than unity from hate. Bringing people with the sound of tekiah is the way to…

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A Lesson From Rabbi Abbahu

How important was respect for our Sages? The Talmud discusses whether one can carry a lit candle on the Sabbath. In Talmudic times of course, without a candle the night was entirely dark. It relates that when Rabbi Abbahu was with Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi, he would carry a candle, but when he was with Rabbi Johanan, he would not (Yebamot 14a). Explaining the difference, we are told that Rabbi Abbahu would act in accordance with the beliefs of his colleagues. Although he shared Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi’s belief that it was permitted, out of respect for Rabbi Johanan, when…

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The Sacred City, Jerusalem

Over three thousand years ago Jerusalem was chosen. There are indications it was a place of distinction before, but David’s decision to choose a capital city located between the North and South — as Washington, D.C. is in the U.S. — was decisive. In the great poet Yehuda Amichai’s imagination, Jerusalem still whispers its original Jebusite name: “Y’vus, Y’vus, Y’vus in the dark.” The silent stones speak of ancient peoples, and even today notes are placed in the wall as if to coax the mute rocks into eloquence. Through endless songs and photos and explanations people have tried to capture…

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Saved by Voices

A man complained to his psychiatrist that he talked to himself and was told that it is commonplace, nothing to worry about. But, said the man, you have no idea Doctor, what a nudnick I am. The more time we spend alone the more likely we are to grow accustomed and perhaps impatient with our own voices inside our heads. For some it is a good thing: musician and wit Oscar Levant said he was giving up reading because he found it took his mind off himself. For most of us however, other voices are essential even if we are…

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Jewish Doctors!

In the 12th century the great sage Maimonides wrote, “One who is ill has not only the right but the obligation to seek medical aid.” Jews have long been overrepresented in the medical field. To take one statistic quoted by Sherwin Nuland (a Jewish Doctor) in his short biography of Maimonides (a Jewish doctor): In the beginning of the fourteenth century, Jews comprised only 5% of the population of Marseilles. Almost half of the city’s doctors were Jewish. This connection endured over time. In Vienna before the second World War, close to three quarters of the doctors were of Jewish…

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The Most Important Word

“The Lord is my shepherd…” Few passages in the Bible are more familiar than the 23rd Psalm. It is recited at funerals, at the bedside of the sick and in times of consolation. Its brevity and majesty make it among the most loved poems of all time. For English speakers, the King James translation of the Psalm is part of the common culture: ‘my cup runneth over’ and ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ For us however, it is a word often unnoticed that is the most important in the entire Psalm: “Yea, though I walk…

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