Off the Pulpit


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Unkind Thoughts

In decades of serving as a Rabbi, I cannot tell you for sure which phenomenon in the synagogue is most commonly helpful, but I can tell you which is the most commonly destructive – the assumption of ill-will. Disagreements are expected. Even arguments can be salutary. God knows the Jewish people have a decided tendency to argue. But the belief that the other person is advancing a position because they are driven by nefarious motives contributes to the deep divisions within communities. The issue can be about masks or about minyan; it can be about staffing or about schooling; it…

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Heart Shells

When my brother and I were kids, we would go into the front yard and play egg toss. The idea of the game was to move farther and farther from one another and toss the egg so that the other could catch it without allowing the shell to break. My mother did not approve of this game. The key to success was to move your hands with the egg as it arrived. If you caught it with your hands fixed the egg would almost certainly break. If you could move with it, however, you had a chance of keeping it…

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Why Jew Hatred is Different

In the history of most group hatred, there is a limit – geographical, economic or cultural. Some people may express hatred of Asians, but they do not wish to wipe China and Japan off the map. Some people may hate African Americans, but they don’t wish the world to be rid of all people of color, even if they wish their corner of the world to be so purged. Generally, hatred has the limit of one’s personal experience – if the hater need not be in contact with or have his life changed by a certain group, that is sufficient….

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The Failure of Success

People often speak about the lessons one can learn from failure. We know that failure can teach you humility, resilience and a certain acceptance of the inequities of life. There are also lessons to learn from early success, both good and bad. Dostoevsky had a gambling problem. The great novelist was often in debt and yet could not prevent himself from losing still more at the gambling tables. His compulsion has often been attributed to the fact that the first time he gambled, he succeeded spectacularly. That success in the end, proved a failure. The same happened with some nations…

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Is It My Fault?

When something bad or tragic happens to people, they will often say, “what did I do to deserve this?” Many people insist that nothing happens without a reason. Karma, or what you put out there, is the cause for whatever you may be suffering today. I don’t believe that is the way the world works. Rather it has always appeared to me that much of life is random, and our challenge is how we react to that which is given us. Rather than arrange each event, God gives us strength to meet them as they come. In the Talmud, it…

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The Trap of Acclaim

The Athenian general Phocion was considered the wisest politician of his day, although he often opposed the prevailing consensus. Once, when his speech was interrupted by enthusiastic cheering, he paused: “Have I inadvertently said something stupid?” Everyone in public life has had this experience. There are certain declarative or even disparaging statements that will arouse enthusiasm, not for their wisdom, but for their effectiveness as rallying cries. This power to evoke emotion is not the captive of any political party or faction and is addictive both to the speaker and to the crowd. Measured, thoughtful words do not bring people…

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A True Hero

In 1930 Winston Churchill asked, “Can a nation remain healthy, can all nations draw together, in a world whose brightest stars are film stars?” That question is far more cogent today than it was when Churchill first asked. We are a culture that lionizes people who create clever mini-videos or run faster than the person next to them. Skill is confused with character, and children revere people who, whatever their gifts, are not role models. Athletes and singers exist in the Torah as well. There is a great physical prodigy the Torah, his name is Samson. But he becomes a…

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From Beyond the Grave

The poet Langston Hughes asked that a particular Duke Ellington song be played at his funeral: Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me. Is such a thing possible? The idea of hearing messages from beyond the grave has tantalized human beings for as long as can remember. The Jewish tradition certainly believes that this life is not all. The possibility that there is some sort of murky bridge to the beyond is raised repeatedly in Jewish texts. In one famous episode in a medieval source, Rabbi Akiba meets a man who was cruel in his life and whose son does…

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One of the lessons I have learned over decades in the rabbinate is how hard it is to criticize one’s own. People who will criticize other countries, or the other party, will not turn a disapproving eye on their own. On social media there is an unending parade of disparagement, but almost all of it disparages the side the author opposes anyway. Endless rhetorical bombs are lobbed over the fence, but few are exploded in one’s own camp. Why is it so wrenching to criticize one’s own? In part because you do not only challenge beliefs, you also lose allies…

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Don’t Trouble Yourself

There is a beautiful story told of the Brisker Rav, Reb Hayyim Halevy Soloveitchik. Once a man arrived late at night in Brisk. All the houses were dark save one so he knocked at the door. He was greeted warmly, and the host prepared a meal for him. Looking around the man saw that the house was filled with sefarim, sacred books, and surmised that the man was learned, a Rabbi or a perhaps a Dayyan, a judge. The man became uncomfortable disturbing a scholar and said to his host, “You needn’t trouble yourself.” His host didn’t answer but instead…

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