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May


Empty Seats


I have a book called “Synagogues Without Jews.” It contains photographs of synagogues, many of them beautiful, where the Jewish community no longer exists. All that remains is the empty sanctuary. It bears mute, eloquent testimony to the destruction of Jewish communities across the globe. In this week when we celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, there are once again synagogues without Jews. The pandemic has emptied houses of worship and the sacred scrolls stand in the ark awaiting our return. Unlike the desolate sanctuaries in the book however, we will return to the synagogue. Once again celebrations and song…

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April


Freedom First


Passover is done, but may I bring one more word about matzah? Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a great chasidic master, once pointed out the strange sequence in the seder. Matzah represents freedom and the bitter herbs slavery. The seder begins with the Israelites enslaved. Why then do we eat matzah before maror, the bitter herbs? His answer was that we need to appreciate freedom before we can understand the bitterness of slavery. Matzah must come first. When we lament that we are trapped at home, it is because we understand the joy of being able to go where we wish. Every…

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A Truth of Life


“There was not a house in which there was not death.” The Torah says this with regard to the Egyptians, but it is also a universal truth. Sooner or later in every house in which there is life there will be death. We avoid confronting that reality. For most of human history people died in the streets or at home. Modern arrangements have made death remote and antiseptic. But the world reminds us that we do not have forever; that life is fragile and fleeting; that refusing to confront the reality of death does not change the fact that we…

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Whose Affliction?


“This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”   Why does the second sentence follow the first?   Perhaps we are misreading the famous injunction to be kind to the strangers because we were strangers in Egypt. It might not mean — you were a stranger so it is natural to have empathy for other strangers. For often people react in the opposite way: “I suffered and made it through, so they too can make it through.” Sometimes the difficulty of one’s own experience hardens rather than softens…

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Whose Affliction?


This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” Why does the second sentence follow the first? Perhaps we are misreading the famous injunction to be kind to the strangers because we were strangers in Egypt. It might not mean — you were a stranger so it is natural to have empathy for other strangers. For often people react in the opposite way: “I suffered and made it through, so they too can make it through.” Sometimes the difficulty of one’s own experience hardens rather than softens us. The Torah may be…

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Freedom In Captivity


The great Rabbi, the Maharal of Prague in the 16th century wrote that Passover changed the nature of the Jewish people, making them free even throughout the captivities of history. This theme was expressed in the twentieth century by Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the Tzaddik of Jerusalem who used to visit prisons and tell prisoners that genuine freedom began not from without, but from within. In our own time, luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, although in prison, testified that they felt freedom in their souls.   For many of us this will be the first Pesach when we…

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March


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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