Rita and Horst

Rita and Horst Blunk
Rita and Horst Blunk

After a wonderful study session about Jacob at the Christus Kirche in Bordesholm last night, Vickie and I arrived quite late and very tired in Husum. We are the guests of a most wonderful couple, Rita and Horst Blunk.

Last year they drove an hour each way to Kiel to attend services and study sessions that I led. Before we left to return to the USA, Horst presented me with a clock with Hebrew letters marking the hours that he had made. It has a proud place in my study at home.

When we returned to Germany this year, we learned that Horst and Rita had arranged for me to conduct, tonight, the first Jewish service in the synagogue in Friedrichsstadt since the end of World War II.

Earlier today, Vickie and I addressed some three hundred students in an assembly of Senior HS students at the Theodor-Storm Schule in Husum, which Horst had also arranged. For many of them it was the first time they had heard from a rabbi or individuals whose family members were directly affected by the horror of Nazi time.

Rita was born Jewish, but her family did not practice. By profession she is a nurse, but she moves around the kitchen with such grace and alacrity that she could have been a dancer. “The pace in the hospital, is so quick,“ she said, “that I have to move fast.”

Horst officially entered the mikvah and took on the Covenant of the Jewish people one year ago, but his Jewish journey began more than four decades earlier.

As a Christian pastor he began to explore the Jewish roots of his faith by driving 300 kilometers on a regular basis to the synagogue in Hannover. Horst’s growing love of Judaism helped Rita reclaim her spiritual identity. Today Jewish books, artwork and symbols adorn the walls of their lovely house.

On Shabbat morning Rita, Horst, Vickie, and a few others will join for Torah study in their home. I know that, as they always do, Horst and Rita will make interesting observations and raise challenging questions.

I look forward to this Shabbat with great joy!

Speaking with Vickie to students at Theodor-Storm HS in Husum
Speaking with Vickie to students at Theodor-Storm HS in Husum

Ich will gehen!

Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabscnitt Hayye Sahra (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

„Ich will gehen!“ Mit diesen Worten verändert Rebecca – und im weiteren Sinne die Tora – die Richtung der Geschichte der Menschheit.

Abraham ist jetzt alt und weiß, dass die Zukunft des flügge werdenden Bundes, den er mit Gott eingegangen ist, davon abhängt, die richtige Frau für Isaak zu finden.

Er sendet seinen vertrauenswürdigen Diener (den der Midrasch einstimmig mit Eliezer aus Genesis 15 identifizieren) nach Haran und sagt ihm: Finde die richtige Frau und bring sie hierher zurück ins Verheißene Land.

Mit Gottes Hilfe und nach einem genialen Test am Brunnen, wählt Eliezer Rebecca. Er geht dann zu ihrem Bruder und Vormund, Laban, um um ihre Hand anzuhalten. Laban ist einverstanden, aber bevor Rebecca geht, fragt er, ob sie einverstanden ist.

Die Tora mach daraus keine große Sache, aber es ist ein erdbebenartiger Präzedenzfall im jüdischen Recht: Eine Frau kann nicht ohne ihre Zustimmung verheiratet werden.

Der Tora-Abschnitt endet mit den aufschlussreichen Worten: „Und Isaak liebte sie und fand bei ihr Trost nach dem Tod seiner Mutter.“

Nach meiner Erfahrung als Rabbiner bedeutet der Tod eines Elternteils oft großen Stress für eine Ehe. Manchmal ist der Partner einfach nicht in der Lage das Maß des Schmerzes zu erfassen, den der Trauernde fühlt. Manchmal kann er oder sie einfach nicht die richtigen Worte finden, um auf die Bedürfnisse dessen einzugehen, der einen Verlust erlitten hat. Ich habe Ehen deswegen zerbrechen sehen.

Der kurze Satz macht klar, dass ihre Ehe stark war und Rebecca Isaaks Bedürfnisse erfüllt.

Der Tora-Abschnitt der nächsten Woche wird zeigen, dass Rebecca von den beiden bei weitem den stärkeren Charakter hat. Aber diese Unabhängigkeit und Stärke offenbart sich schon in ihrer Antwort (im Hebräischen ein Wort) auf die Frage ihres Bruders: „Bist du damit einverstanden, mit diesem Mann zu gehen und dein Leben weit weg von Zuhause zu führen?“ Sie antwortet: אלך – ay-lech – Ich will gehen!“

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

A Return to The Leipzig Zoo

The wolf figurine I purchased at the Leipzig Zoo as a symbol of hope for the future
The wolf figurine I purchased at the Leipzig Zoo as a symbol of hope for the future

The other day, I went back to the Leipzig zoo.

The Zoo was only a fraction of its present size when I last visited it in 1982. Then I had to lie to enter East Germany.

When the train I was on back then came to the tiny border crossing at Oebisfelde, the guard asked me why I wanted to go to Leipzig.

Naively I answered, “My father was born and grew up in Leipzig. He lived here until he was arrested on Kristallnacht. I am a rabbi, and I want to see where he lived.”

As I spoke I could see the guard’s face harden. “You cannot enter the country. You must take a train (five hours in the complete opposite direction) to Berlin and ask for a visa. “They will decide there, if you can enter or not.”

In Berlin I told the border official that I was an art teacher (praying all the while he would not ask me anything about art) who wanted to see Leipzig’s famous museums. I received a thirty-six-hour visa.

When I finally got to Leipzig, I went straight to the zoo just to stand at the stream where Nazis forced Jews to wade on Kristallnacht.

I envisioned my father standing in that stream while citizens obeyed the Nazi soldiers’ commands to spit, jeer, and throw mud at them.

In 1982 I poured out my anger and my bittiness, and I spit into the stream in retaliation.

But as I walked toward the zoo’s exit, a remarkable sight transfixed me. A mother wolf stood stark still while her baby nursed.

How, I wondered, could a scene of such peace and tranquility exist in a place that represented such horror to me?

On that day I decided to embrace the message of those wolves. Although the wolf once symbolized Nazi ferocity, these wolves represented peace and harmony to me. They assuaged my anger with hope that the future could be better than the past.

And things are better.

This year I came to Leipzig to speak at Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening in the synagogue, on Sunday in a Lutheran church, on Monday afternoon to a group of Protestant youth, and later that evening at a Catholic center about the German, edition of my book: What’s In it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. I cherish the warm reception I received in each of these places.

During some down time, I went back to the zoo.

I stopped and prayed at the monument to those arrested on Kristallnacht that stands by the stream. Then I hoped to find some wolves. After searching in vain for over an hour, I did the next best thing. I bought a small hand-painted Schleich wolf figurine in the gift shop.

It will remind me how much better things are for Jews in Leipzig today than in 1938 and 1982.

My Leipzig wolf will also remind me—as I hope one day it will remind my children and my grandchildren—that it is our job to make the future better still.


I Will Go

Quick Comment, Parashat Hayye Sarah, (Genesis, Chapters 23:1-25:18)

“I will go.” With these words Rebecca—and by extension the Torah—changed the course of human history.

Abraham is now old and knows the future of the fledgling Covenant he has established with God depends on finding just the right wife for Isaac. He dispatches his trusted servant (whom the Midrash unanimously concludes is Eliezer of Genesis 15) to Haran and says find the right woman and bring her back here to the Promised Land.

With God’s help and after an ingenious test at the well, Eliezer chooses Rebecca. He then goes to her brother and legal guardian, Laban, to ask for her hand. Laban agrees, but before Rebecca leaves, he asks and receives her consent

Torah does not make a big deal of it, but it set an earth shaking legal precedent in Jewish law. A woman cannot be married without her consent.

The episode ends with the instructive words, “And Isaac loved her and found comfort in her after the death of his mother.”

In my experience as a rabbi I have found the death of a parent often imposes great stress on a marriage.

Sometimes he or she is simply not able to respond in a way that meets the acute emotional needs of the one who suffers a loss. I have seen marriages fall apart surrounding this issue.

The last sentence of the story tells us that the marriage was strong, and Rebecca met Isaac’s needs well.

Next week’s portion will reveal that Rebecca was by far the stronger character of the two, but that independence and strength revealed themselves in her (one-word in Hebrew) answer to her brother’s question, “Do you consent to go with this man, and live your life far away from home? She answered, “אלך I will go!”