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Off The Pulpit: Current NewsletterRabbi David Wolpe   "Ideal and Real"
by Rabbi David Wolpe

Why do the five books of the Torah end with Israel still in the wilderness? The entire story points toward the Promised Land, yet Moses dies and the Israelites are outside the land. 

One possibility is the Torah's lesson that the land is both a reality and an ideal. In the book of Joshua, the Israelites enter the land and have to fight to establish themselves. In the wilderness, they will dream of the land and envision an ideal. 

Robert Browning famously wrote: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" In other words, the ideal is what motivates us to stretch ourselves, especially if we know that we are trying to achieve something out of reach. We will always fall short; if we set great goals, however, in our falling short we can still achieve remarkable things. 

The Torah overestimated what the Jewish people could accomplish in the land. It would never be a perfect, peaceful place flowing with milk and honey. But only by presenting the ideal could they hope to make it a home worthy of the land God gave them. 

pdf filedownload here

pdfUpholding Different Principles

When the Torah reading is completed in most synagogues, the scroll is held aloft and the congregation chants, "This is the Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel" (Deut. 4:44). Ashkenazim add "at the Lord's bidding through Moses" (Num. 9:23). In Sephardic synagogues, the scroll is generally raised before, not after, the reading.

...click here to read more


The mystics speak of Tzimtzum, withdrawal or contraction. God, who fills all, contracts into God’s self to allow space for the world to be created. Tzimtzum is a concept in theological physics, teaching what it means to limit oneself to enable creation.

...click here to read more

pdfGrasp Much; Leave More; Be Grateful.

The law of life is limitation. Our world is infinitely rich but our lives are not endless, so we have to decide what to cherish, what to discard, what to bypass, what to hold close. You can devote your life to a person, a cause, a craft, a quest, an institution, a dream, but you cannot do all at once. As Job says, "My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle (Job 7:6)."

...click here to read more

pdfThe Danger of Doing?

In Tolstoy's War & Peace, General Kutuzov exasperates his comrades by refusing to take action against Napoleon. "Maneuver," they urge him, "outflank, attack!" But the General, except for ordering an occasional retreat, insists on doing as close to nothing as he can. Napoleon on the other hand, is a frenzy of activity. As a result his supply lines are overextended, and the Russian winter devastates his army. Failing to lure the tsar's troops into a decisive confrontation, he is forced to withdraw, beaten, back to France. Tolstoy summarizes Kutuzov's philosophy as "the less you do, the less you err."

...click here to read more






pdfAre Converts Full Jews?

Is a convert fully Jewish? Here (abbreviated) is the classic letter of Jewish law's greatest authority, the Rambam (Maimonides) to Obadiah the Proselyte, in the 12th century:

I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte…You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: "Our God" and "God of our fathers," "You who have sanctified us through Your commandments," "You who have separated us," "You who have chosen us," "You who have inherited us," "You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt," "You who have worked miracles to our fathers," and more of this kind.

...click here to read more

pdfMake the Call

Years ago I heard a story about the remarkable Ben Hecht, creator of the screwball comedy, writer extraordinaire, acrobat, violinist and passionate defender of Jews in WWII and Israel. When the State was founded, Hecht found himself in the office of a Jewish mogul raising money for Israel.

...click here to read more

pdfOur Mission, Now

The prophets speak ceaselessly about care for the needy and the poor. The call originates in the Torah. Deuteronomy 15:7, tell us that "if there is a poor person among you...do not harden your heart and shut your hand." On Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah, reminding us that the fast God wants is this: "To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, clothe him..." (Is. 58:6, 7).

...click here to read more




pdfPoverty and Scholarship

When the New Yorker was first launched in 1935 and for a long time after, money was very tight. Once, when the first editor, Harold Ross, asked Dorothy Parker why she had not written a promised piece, she answered, "Well, someone else was using the pencil."

...click here to read more

pdfWhat Older People Know

Childhood, wrote George Eliot, is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow.

One of the pains of youth is that we have not yet aged; we cannot imagine how much we will change, how our memories will reconfigure themselves, that this moment is not forever. As we grow, the accumulation of sorrows carries comfort: we have been sad, or hurt, or disappointed before and discovered that change is the one constant of life. As Solomon's ring had it, this too shall pass.

...click here to read more

pdfMonastary Wisdom

After more than 15 years as a pulpit Rabbi perhaps the wisest comment I have seen about synagogue life comes from a monastery. In her lovely memoir, Cloister Walk about her time in a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, Kathleen Norris writes:

...click here to read more


The art of living is one of self creation. The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that when God says in Genesis "Let us make man" God is speaking with the royal 'we.' But a later Hasidic teaching argues that God is speaking to human beings — together we will make you. I will endow you with certain gifts and you must spend your life soul-shaping.

...click here to read more

pdfPassion and Wisdom

Everyone decries extremism, but it is hard to turn out crowds for moderation. The satiric Czech novelist Hašek once started a political movement called "The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law." If you've never heard of it that is because it never quite picked up steam.

...click here to read more



pdfChoosing Your Path

“What should I do with my life?” The question pursues us to the very end of our days. The question of fulfilling our destiny in this world is a constant challenge and provocation.

Some believe each of us should fulfill a fixed, preset design and life is a search; others believe our purpose is created and life is a shaping.

...click here to read more

pdfAiding an Ailing World

We read the paper and learn of deprivation we will never see with our own eyes. It is hard enough to help a neighbor; how can we imagine helping people in other lands, who speak a different language and live in a foreign culture?

The opening sentences of the Torah are intended to combat just this parochialism. All human beings are kin; we all share in the Divine spark. When volunteers from Jewish World Watch aid refugees in Sudan, they do so as Jews. When I travel with congregants after Sukkot to Thailand with American Jewish World Service, we will dig and build and study as Jews. Judaism taught the world that we all share a humanity that we can betray but never destroy.

...click here to read more








pdfMy Mother and Helen Keller

In this month of Elul when we prepare for Rosh Hashana we are reminded that our highest destiny is to face life's pains and prevail, over and over again. Stamina, not giftedness, is the most precious
attribute of character. Resilience is the strain of spiritual DNA that distinguishes those who build lives of purpose and beauty.

...click here to read more

pdfAnimal Rights and Wrongs

When God wishes to choose leaders, the Rabbis teach, God looks to see how they tend sheep. Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds. This rabbinic teaching reminds us how important it is to be kind to those whom we do not need. But let's take it more literally: how nice are you to sheep?

...click here to read more

pdfThe Secret of the Kaddish

The kaddish may be the best known Jewish prayer and yet its purpose is mysterious. Though the mourning prayer, it makes no mention of death. Rather, what it proclaims is the greatness and sanctity of God and God's name.

...click here to read more

pdfThe Ten Commandments

My teacher Simon Greenberg once explained the great innovation of the Ten Commandments. He explained that the first four are the justification for the last six. In other words, he told us, the Ten Commandments introduced the world to the idea that God cares most how we treat one another.

...click here to read more

pdfImperfect Venus

In his classic history of art Ernst Gombrich offers a powerful insight into life while discussing Botticelli's famous "Birth of Venus." Botticelli deliberately misproportioned Venus and Gombrich notes that the figure emerging from the half shell is more beautiful for her flaws: "the unnatural length of her neck, the steepfall of her shoulders..." The painter's Venus is less correctly drawn than his predecessors, but "they enhance the impression of an infinitely tender and delicate being."

...click here to read more

pdfInspired by Ruin

Ruins are a catalyst to imagination. When we see the remains of an old building or civilization we can imagine what once stood in that place. Should you travel this summer, notice the inspiration of lost splendor. Gaps and flaws and remnants are the spur to vision.

...click here to read more

pdfThey Make Us Better

Recent studies on college roommates suggest that our cognitive styles — whether we face adversity with optimism or despair — are not fixed. After only three months roommates influence each other: the resilient ones changing the approach of the pessimists and vice versa. Once more the ancient wisdom is reaffirmed: we are not only known, but shaped, by the company we keep.

...click here to read more











There is no achievement without obstacles and no triumph without reversals. Failure, said Churchill, is not fatal. He would know: Although we reckon Churchill an astounding success, he was voted out of office and despondent in the years before becoming Prime Minister of England. When in the hospital he lost his place in Parliament, writing later: "In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix."

...click here to read more

pdfSins of Weakness and Strength

In his jealous madness, King Saul has many Priests killed and is stripped of the kingship. King David commits adultery and though punished, retains the kingship. The spies who distrust God and bring bad reports of the land of Israel perish in a plague, but more dramatically and severely, Korach and his band are swallowed up by the earth. Why the difference?

...click here to read more

pdfYou're So Annoying!

Right before Moses strikes the rock, the sin which will prevent his entering the land of Israel, he yells at the people: "listen now, rebels (hamorim)" (Numbers 20:10). But here is a case where the subtle indications carried by a word teach an invaluable lesson.

...click here to read more

pdfSinai and Zion

We were a wandering people but with a direction — headed toward a place. In his brilliant book, Sinai & Zion biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson contrasts the legacy of the two mountains. Sinai is the peak of the wilderness, the time of desert wandering. It was a miraculous time, plagues and revelations, splitting seas and early discoveries of God.

...click here to read more

pdfSand Castles

There is a poignant story of a Rabbi who learned the meaning of life from children building sand castles. As he watched the intensity with which they built, he could not help but realize that in a few hours, everything they created would be washed away. Yet it did not diminish their focus or joy.

...click here to read more

pdfA Time For Silence

The world will not keep quiet.

Stores play music, billboards blare, our cars, iPods, and cellphones bombard us with words, images, and music. Still, silence and absence are among our most important teachers. As a great pianist once remarked, his playing uniquely was distinguished less by the notes than the space between the notes. Mystics studied not only the black letters of the Torah, but the white spaces between them. Stillness, absence, silence — the first letter of the Ten Commandments was an aleph, which has no sound.

...click here to read more

pdfEntering Synagogue - Open or Closed?

How do we walk into synagogue?

Too often we enter in a state of defensiveness and predation: we are both fearful for ourselves and ready to judge the dress, the conduct, and the company of others. Our dismissals are at the ready, firing as soon as the baby cries or the hosiery runs or the congregant behind us loudly whispers. God is little on our minds, since thoughts of God exist uneasily with focus on social hierarchy. Once we have ranked and settled, perhaps we can pray.

...click here to read more








pdfReligious Communities in Tragic Times

The tragedies of the past weeks remind us why religious community matters:

...click here to read more

pdfTake Off Your Shoes

When God appears at the burning bush, what is the first thing Moses is told to do? Take off his shoes.

One explanation offered by the Rabbis is that shoes separate us from the earth. Moses must feel each burr and stone, for he will need to learn to share the sufferings of Israel.

...click here to read more

pdfJust Ask the Trees

How much of our pain is self inflicted? How much of our confusion is self-generated? As Bishop Butler remarked, "men first kick up a dust and then complain they cannot see."

The midrash offers a kindred insight. The Rabbis tell us that when iron was created, the trees began to tremble. Here was their certain foe in the shape of the axe. God said to them "Why are you trembling? If wood is not joined to it, not one of you will suffer." Without the axe handle, the iron is useless. The midrashic lesson is clear: that which we fear often gains its power through our own contribution.

...click here to read more

pdfIt's Illogical

Pure logic. Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek's Mr. Spock remind us of their blinding power. The stories are contrived but convincing — if only we could reason like that! Yet some marvelous books of mystery fiction depend upon the masterful detective getting things wrong. In Knox's The Viaduct Murder, and most famously, E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case the detective follows a very careful train of argument, meticulously reasoned, and is proved entirely mistaken. Spock too sometimes misfires. And then of course, there is Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory." So logical, so often wrong.
...click here to read more









pdfPeople of the Wine Stained Book

If you ask yourself whether Jews really deserve the appellation "people of the book" consider the following: every synagogue is architecturally designed to highlight the ark, which contains a book; in praise of the scholar, in the Talmud it was said, upon his internment that, "a scroll of the law was buried today." And for the most famous meal of our tradition it is not enough to eat and drink and talk — one must read out of the Haggadah, which is a book. ...click here to read more

pdfNever Heard of It

Cultural references were once shared. Now, with the explosion and profusion of media, we no longer watch the same shows or listen to the same music. Denizens of each cultural cul-de-sac lament the ignorance of others who don’t know their favorite band or book, or the blogger, tweeter or pinterest goddess of the moment. ...click here to read more


The classical explanation for breaking a glass at the end of the wedding is to recall the destruction of Jerusalem. As the glass is broken, everyone screams out Mazel Tov! There is something peculiar, not only about recalling an historic tragedy at that exact moment, but also shouting for joy just as it is recalled. ...click here to read more

pdfFoundation of Faith

For many people, when tragedy strikes, faith is challenged. But as the late David Hartman wrote: "If one's whole sense of the life of faith depends upon a miracle-based conception of providence and the biblical promises of reward and punishment, then one risks exchanging God for alternative sources of well-being and security. The fundamental issue in the battle against idolatry is to prevent this from happening." ...click here to read more












pdfIn Praise of Ignorance

In the age of knowledge who will say a nice word on behalf of ignorance?

Not deliberate ignorance. Turning away from discovery and insight is cowardice and ultimately destructive. But recognition of the limits of our knowledge is salutary and important. Years ago I heard a writer say that each time you read a biography you should imagine how well your best friend would do recounting your love life. When you realize that even those who know you best have large gaps and misperceptions, you read with a different, more skeptical eye. The story is told of Sir Walter Raleigh that he decided to end his history of the world when he couldn’t find the cause of a quarrel under his window at the Tower of London. ...click here to read more

pdfThe Pleasure of Ruins

Walking through graveyards can be calming and powerful. They enshrine foreverness in a way that nothing else quite does. Each headstone is an emblem of eternity. Behind the inscription is all the passion of life reduced to a name, a few numbers, a brief description. The older and more moldering the yard, the more precious it seems. ...click here to read more

pdfOn Whom Do We Rely?

Deep questions deserve more than one answer. Should we rely on God or on ourselves? In Exodus (14:15) as the Israelites approach the sea, Moses cries out to God. God answers, "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to move forward." So it seems a moment for self-reliance. But Rashi rereads the Hebrew to mean "Why do you cry out? It's on Me." In other words, God is saying — no need to cry out, I will save you. ...click here to read more











pdfSelfless Creation

Selfless creation is the backbone of the world. Like the architect who designs a house he will not inhabit, each of us must shape the world in ways that will not benefit us. We raise children to contribute to life after we are gone. We build businesses or write books or compose music to be enjoyed, we hope, when we are no more. Pitiful is the ambition that does not aim beyond itself. ...click here to read more

pdfThat's Your Best Excuse???

Excuses, excuses. None of us lacks reasons or justifications. As Rabbi Joseph Telulshkin puts it, rationalizations are more important than food. After all, we have all gone a day without eating. ...click here to read more

pdfWhat Vanishes?

In his autobiography the great director Akira Kurosawa muses: "'Mono-no-aware,' sadness at the fleeting nature of things, like the sweet, nostalgic sorrow of watching the cherry blossoms fall — when I heard this ancient poetic term, I was suddenly struck by enlightenment as if waking from a dream." To recognize impermanence can be saddening but also an awakening. ...click here to read more

(Click here to read Rabbi Wolpe's take on Lance Armstrong and ego in America)

pdfThe True Power of Now

"Live for the moment." "This is the only time you have." We have all heard these statements, statements of an undeniable but insufficient truth.

How we live now will have powerful implications for our lives in the days and years that follow. Since the odds are pretty good that now will not actually be the only moment we will ever have, don't live as if it were. ...click here to read more

pdfA New Year's Prayer

...click here to read
also appeared in The Huffington Post

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