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Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

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2024  |  2023


June


Beha’alotcha – What Should I Say?


The title word of the book Bamidbar (In the Wilderness) is connected by rabbinic tradition with dibur (speech). The book and the word intertwine; portable cultures rely on words. The desert brings a range of speech: First, there is the speech of complaint, the ancient kvetch. The Israelites are unhappy with the manna and demand meat. According to the Rabbis, the manna could taste like whatever one wished, so why would they complain? An acute suggestion from R. Jonathan Eybeschutz explains that everyone collected the manna equally. Therefore, no one could be better than his or her neighbors. They claimed…

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Shavuot – A New Idea of God


The Israelites stood at Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and the sense that something epochal in history was unfolding. To this very day, what is called the revelation at Sinai is central to Jewish tradition and the ten commandments are central to the world. What precisely was revealed that made so much of a difference? There are many ways to answer this question, but let me suggest one: In the ancient world, as we see when we read Homer or other myths, how the gods felt about you depended upon how you treated them. Give them what they want…

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Bamidbar – Children of the Wilderness


Anti-Memoirs, the autobiography of the French writer, adventurer, and critic André Malraux, begins with a very pointed story. During the war, Malraux once escaped the Germans in the company of a parish priest. When the two cross paths years later, Malraux asks his former companion what he has learned about human nature from a decade and more of hearing personal confessions. Two things, the priest replies. First, that people are much unhappier than one would think; second, “there is no such thing as a grownup.” The first verse of the book of Numbers is: “The Lord spoke to Moses in…

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May


Bechukotai – The Magic of “If”


Mark Twain, whose manuscripts are nearly illegible due to all the changes and revisions, once wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter, ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” For a word to be lightning, it does not need to be long. In this week’s Torah portion, the 19th century sage, Mei Hashiloah, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Izhbitza, focuses on two letters: the word “if,” which begins the portion: “If you walk in my ways.” (Leviticus 26:3) He explains that “if” signals the uncertainty of one who…

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Behar – Wood and Stone


The Torah never fails to admonish us about idols. Again in this week’s parashah, we are told not to set up idols. We understand that idols are a kind of substitute God, and therefore, it seems like we are insulting God by worshipping other gods, particularly when they are the products of our own hands. But I want to suggest two more ways that idols are dangerous – by making us too important and by making us too insignificant. Idols contribute to our sense that we can channel the great forces of the world and control them. We make idols…

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Emor- How to Really Count


During these days, Jews count the “Omer.” The Omer marks the 50 days traveling the desert from Egypt to Sinai. Beginning the second night of Passover, we count each day until the holiday of Shavuot, 50 days later, when Israel stood at Sinai to receive the Torah. Jews follow the practice of counting each evening, and there are many spiritual and mystical significances given to the days. The Omer also has agricultural significance. It recalls the wave offering of the Temple on the second day of Passover. The wave offering was a measure of flour made from the first sheaves…

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Kedoshim – Forgiveness and Self-Love


Rabbi Akiva identifies a problematic verse as the most important one in the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Parashat Kedoshim contains a number of laws, but it is revealing to note what immediately precedes the admonition, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The beginning of the verse is, “Lo tikom v’lo titur” (Do not take vengeance or hold a grudge against others). If you are not to hold a grudge, what ought one to do? When someone commits an offense against you, the alternative to holding a grudge is forgiveness. We are all aware…

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Acharei Mot – The Eternal Scapegoat


“The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:22).” This week, we read about the ceremony that led to the term scapegoat.’ That which is guiltless bears away the guilt and shame of others. In time, the idea became not just that we place our sins knowingly on someone or something else, but that we blame them for our own failings. We are absolved and the other is guilty. For much of human this very psychology played a role in hatred of the Jews….

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April


A Passover Reading


Blessed are You O Lord our God, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to eat bitter herbs. We sit in ease at the Seder table and eat bitter herbs to recall the hardships of our ancestors and the ordeals of those who still suffer. We cannot forget the images of our brothers and sisters who are hostages, in cruel captivity; those families who sit at the seder in bitter anguish wondering about the fate of those whom they love; families who sit at the table that is not full, for loved ones killed in battle, injured…

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Metsorah – Passover Then and Now


Throughout Jewish history, the Passover has operated on two levels of time. The Haggadah recounts the past, the story of both the Exodus and the Talmudic Rabbis who expound on it. The words make all of the ideas come alive for the participants: slavery, freedom, study, storytelling, song, and symbol. Passover is quintessentially a celebration of the events of the Jewish past. At the same time, the Passover is about the present. In medieval times, Jews felt their predicament as parallel to their ancestors, and the despotism and persecution with which they lived lent power to the tales of the…

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