When I traveled to Las Vegas in July 2019 for the fiftieth wedding anniversary of my friend since grammar school, Steve King and his wife Wendy, Steve stood me up before his many friends and relatives and proclaimed, “This guy is a Rabbi, but I remember when he HATED Hebrew school.”
Steve was right. Back in the day, Hebrew School was nothing more than an annoying intrusion on my athletic endeavors.
That attitude accompanied me as my eighth-grade year in Sunday School began. We had a sweet gentle teacher who could not come close to controlling our incorrigible class.
When the bell rang on our fourth Sunday, our teacher was not there. My classmates and I were having a jolly old time talking and throwing wadded up pieces of paper at one another.
Suddenly the door opened, and Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth walked into the room. Ehrenworth was a battle tested, tough-as-nails, high school Principal in Bloomfield, NJ.
His dark eyes took in the chaos before him, and with three words delivered in a voice like cold steel, he put “the incorrigibles” out of business:
“Take your seats.”
Mr. Ehrenworth could make me behave, but he could not make me care about anything he had to teach. I still remember the comment he wrote to my parents on my first religious school report card:
“This is a difficult report to write since I know you personally …” He went on to explain that I paid scant attention to the lessons and never completed any homework assignments.
But Ehrenworth pierced my armor, permanently as things turned out, when he began to teach about Judah’s dramatic address to Joseph beginning in Genesis 44:18.
Somehow, Ehrenworth made me appreciate the power and the beauty of the speech that Sir Walter Scott once judged, “The most complete pattern of genuine of natural eloquence extant in any language.” (Joseph Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs,London, Soncino Press, Second Edition, 1980, p. 169)
Earlier in the story (Genesis 37:16-17) the direction of Joseph’s life changed when he was looking for his brothers but could not find them. A man, who saw him wandering in the fields, told him he could find his brothers in Dothan. So, Joseph went to Dothan. Rabbinic commentators call “the man” an angel, sent by God to alter the direction of Joseph’s life by pointing him to his brothers and eventually to Egypt.
Although I hardly knew it at the time, Mr. Ehrenworth by making me see the beauty and power of Judah’s speech changed the direction of my life.
One Friday night during the summer after my freshman year in college I had been invited to conduct services at my home synagogue while the rabbi was on vacation. I was shocked to see Mr. Ehrenworth in the congregation.
I was proud of the service I conducted that night and of the first-ever sermon I delivered. To my disappointment, Mr. Ehrenworth did not speak to me after the service, but he nodded – almost imperceptibly—in my direction as he left the building.
I never saw him again.
He never knew he was an angel.