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Showing posts from February, 2023

Building the Sanctuary of the Heart

The Hasidic movement was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer in eighteenth century Ukraine. It was a radical departure from traditional norms in which rabbinic leadership was predicated on scholarship and in particular mastery of the Talmud. Rabbi Israel, who later became known as the Baal Shem Tov, was a schoolteacher and laborer. He was more enamored of mystical texts such as the Zohar than classical rabbinic texts. He loved meditating rather than studying. Unlike other rabbis he did not spend his days poring over traditional passages. Instead, he would spend considerable time wandering in the woods. He taught that the spiritual path was a mystical road open to anyone. The secret is not, the Hasidic masters taught, mastery of chapter and verse, but instead in finding a teacher, a rebbe. Follow in his footsteps. Sing wordless melodies (niggunim) by his side. These were always the best medicine and the recipe Hasidism offered to the Jewish masses hungry for spirituality but unable to d

Why Study Chemistry? Why Study Torah?

Recently my seventh graders engaged in a heated discussion about the virtues of the subjects they are studying in school. I asked them which class they liked the best. “Math,” said one. “FCS,” said another one. “What is FCS?” I asked. “Family and Consumer Science,” they answered. “What is “Family and Consumer Science?” I responded. “We learn how to cook and sew,” a student chimed in. All their answers hinged on the subjects’ apparent usefulness. They reasoned they should know how to balance a checkbook and cook dinner. Learning about American history was another matter. Studying the periodic table did not make much sense. I offered, “Isn’t there value in learning for learning’s sake? Isn’t their merit in learning how to think? Isn’t there interest in finding meaning and inspiration in something as small as an atom?” This week, I open the Torah to a flurry of laws. I read: When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner

Give Me Some Rest

People often say they are spiritual and not religious. “Rabbi, I am not really into organized religion. I am spiritual.” Sometimes I respond, “You do recognize that you are talking to one of the organizers.” Most of the time, I offer an understanding nod and ask them to tell me more. They suggest that they find spirituality and meaning in nature. They believe in the Ten Commandments. By this they mean the ethical precepts such as, “You shall not murder. You shall not steal.” I do not have the heart to remind them about the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of Lord your God: you shall not do any work.” (Exodus 20) In the early 1970’s Princeton University conducted a study of its seminary students. All the students were of course familiar with the story from Christian scriptures about the Good Samaritan from which the law protecting someone who stops to help another derives. Th

Why the Journey Is So Long and Hard

The Torah relates: “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer.” (Exodus 13) Why? Why not take the more direct route? Why lead the Israelites on a roundabout path? The commentators debate this question. Many suggest that God’s concern was practical. If the people traveled through what is today the Gaza Strip, an area then controlled by the Philistines, they would most assuredly confront war. This of course might give them pause. They might have a change of heart and want to return to slavery. The Torah agrees: “God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.’” The medieval commentators Rashi and Nachmanides concur. On the literal level this makes sense. Then again God parts the Sea of Reeds. The sea is divided so that the Israelites might escape the advancing Egyptians. In the beautiful poem “Song of the Sea,” that includes our Mi Chamocha prayer, the Israelites exclaim: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his ar