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Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

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2024  |  2023


February


Terumah – The Space Inside of Us


A rabbi once told me of teaching young children about the Jewish idea of God. He told them that God was everywhere. One boy reached out his hands, clapped them together and said, “Got Him!” We are spatially oriented creatures. Although love, justice, mathematics, and other accompaniments of life exist apart from physicality, God remains difficult to separate in our thoughts from notions of place. The rabbis explain that God is indeed called makom (place) because God is the place of the world, although the world is not God’s place. In other words, God encompasses this world but is also…

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Mishpatim – Inspiration and Effort


The Torah reads, “Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor” (Ex 23:12). But last week, we read, “Remember the seventh day and keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work…” (Ex 20:8-9). Why is the Sabbath mentioned first in one and last in another verse? The Izbitzer Rebbe, the Mei Hashiloah interprets this difference referring to the Gemara that asks: What happens if one is in the desert and has lost track of time and does not know when to observe Shabbat? (Shabbat 69b): One…

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Yithro – The Beginning and End of It


Psychologically, we are predisposed to pay close attention to beginnings and endings. Origin stories are seen as the keys to people’s lives. And psychological research has often shown that how something ends – whether an ordeal or a joyous occasion – has a greater impact than other features of the experience. What begins and concludes the most significant event in the history of Israel? God begins the Ten Commandments with “Anochi,” “I am.” There is a discussion among the commentators as to whether this constitutes a declaration or a commandment. Abarbanel, the great Spanish sage, declares that it is a…

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January


Beshalach – What Do You Carry?


There is an old joke about a rich man who dies and stands before God. God asks, “I made you so wealthy, why did you give nothing to charity?” The man answers, “I will, I have many assets on earth, just let me give now!” The response from God thunders, “Up here, we only accept receipts.” It is axiomatic that you cannot take anything with you when you die. But the reverse is not true – you can take the dead with you when you are alive. This finds both literal and metaphorical expression in this week’s Torah portion when…

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Bo – The Mystery of Darkness


There is an obvious question about the plague of darkness that arises with no other plague – why didn’t the Egyptians just stop it? When locusts are swarming in the sky, or hail is pelting the ground, human beings are helpless. You cannot trap every frog that infests the land. But we all know how to counter darkness – light a candle. A deep answer comes from a famed Sephardi commentator and kabbalist. The Or Hahayim says the darkness was not in the atmosphere; it was in the Egyptians. The Egyptians could not truly see those who were not like…

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Vaera – A Message from Israel


Moses brings news of liberation to the slaves of Israel – but they are unable to hear it. We are told that because of “kotzer ruach” – literally shortness of spirit, and because of hard bondage, the beleaguered people are impervious to Moses’s message of hope (Ex. 6:9). What can that mean? Surely people in slavery thirst for news that they will be set free? Rashi takes kotzer ruach as literal shortness of breath. Sheer physical exertion makes paying attention impossible. Sforno, the Italian Renaissance commentator, assumes it is “spirit” – that the people are unable to summon hope, their…

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Shemot – What Are the Jews?


The book of Genesis presents a family with all of the dysfunction common to families. Then under very peculiar circumstances, that family becomes a different kind of entity. Families we understand – but what are the Jews? Among the baffling realities of Jewish life is that Jews are not a religion. Don’t believe me? Suppose tomorrow I woke up and decided that everything I believed about God and Torah and Jewish ideas and history and ritual were wrong. You know what I would be called? A Jew. Now that’s puzzling. It is clearly not exactly a belief system since one…

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