Off the Pulpit


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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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Dinner Table Topic?

For years I have been asking students of various ages if they ever had a discussion about God around the dinner table. Once the smiles abate, I ask why not. The reasons are usually the same: everyone has different opinions; nobody really knows; what is there to say – you believe or you don’t.   Of course people have different opinions about almost everything. Of the three topics one is not supposed to discuss in polite company – sex, politics, and religion – the first two comprise most of our conversation and only the last is rarely mentioned. Yet what…

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When the brothers meet, Esau tells Jacob “I have much.” Jacob responds by saying “I have enough” (lit. I have everything.)            The scholar and ethicist Meir Tamari calls this “the economics of enough.” We always want more; as Koheleth teaches, “the eye never has enough of seeing nor the ear of hearing” — we might add, nor the hand of grasping. Yet beyond a certain point money and possessions are not what you need or even what you can use, but about salving the ego with more and more and more.        …

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A New Year Of Prayer

Those who are new to traditional Jewish prayer often hear it as a parade of gibberish. There are moments when the congregation sings together but then it is like boxers retreating to their corners, each becoming newly occupied with his or her own stream of chants or mumbles.   Rabbi Simon Greenberg used to say that Jews pray alone together. Individual hearts, each with its own sorrows and dreams, also join in a collective aspiration that takes flight at certain moments in the service. Mumbling, although it is the recitation of words, is closer in sound to the babbling of…

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