Hatach’s Story

I am Hatach, but I bet many of you have never heard of me.  Well, I am here to tell you that I am the unsung hero of the Purim story. Oh, I am easy to forget. In fact, I am so good at being unobtrusive that even Esther and Mordecai sometimes forget about me.  

But at the end of the day, I am the one who you should thank for Esther’s foiling Haman’s plot to kill the Jews. 

You see Esther was locked away in her sumptuous palace. Mordecai, a commoner had no access to her. He could only sit in the outer courtyard, and sometimes even then he breached protocol by dressing in sackcloth and ashes.  Of course, as Iwas to find out, he had good reason. Only because I took his message to Esther and successfully conveyed its urgency did Esther find the courage to risk her very life to see the King.

Do I make too much of my role? Hah! If I do, it is only because for two thousand plus years people have forgotten all about me. So, I want to set the record straight,

But then I am getting ahead of myself.  We have a story to tell

It takes place in imperial Persia long long ago …

Join us at the ZOOM link below to hear the story at 7:30 this evening!


Why God Chose Abraham and All of Us

This is a much longer essay than I usually post. It expresses the essence of how I view the Bible and how I see our connection to God and our role on this planet. I welcome your comments.

In contrast to the gods worshipped by the pagan peoples the God of whom the Hebrew Bible speaks wants more than anything else for human beings to create on this earth a just, caring, and compassionate society.

In the pagan world gods were forces presumed to have power, and the purpose of religion was to appease these gods.  For example, if I planted my crops, I would make an offering to the “agriculture god.”  If I had a successful harvest that told me the god had accepted my offering.  If I had a poor harvest, or if there was a flood or drought, that proved that the god had rejected my offering.  

If I feared an invasion from a neighboring country, I would make an offering to my war god. If I won the war, my offering had been accepted.  If I lost I either concluded that my offering had not found favor, or I abandoned my war god and began worshipping the one of the nation that had conquered mine.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is very different.  Not only is our God indivisible and incorporeal, our God ahs a completely different agenda.  Our God creates humanity in the Divine Image.  That means not that we look like God, but that of all creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers.  

As the Midrash teaches, we human beings share characteristics with both the terrestrial animals and with God.  Like the animals we eat, sleep, eliminate our waste, propagate and die.  But our powers of thought, creativity and self expression are so far above the other earthly creatures that they are considered more God like than earth bound.

Put another way we are neither as swift as the cheetah nor as strong as the rhinoceros, but neither of those creatures is going to build a room like the one in which we worship or perform delicate surgery to repair a damaged heart.  Only humans have that power.

That means – for better or worse — that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for this world.  

We are the only creatures that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore form the mountain and turn that ore in to steel with which to perform the delicate operation referred to above.  At the same time, we are the only creature that can go to the same mountain, mine the same ore, turn into the same iron and forge steel with which to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or to maim.

In other words we possess awesome power, and the abiding hope of the God of the Bible is that we shall use that power to create a world of equity, justice, compassion and peace.

When I began to take religious studies seriously, I pondered a perplexing question.  If the book of Genesis is the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, and if Genesis has fifty chapters, and if Jewish history starts when God calls to Abraham to leave Haran and journey to the promised land, and if that call comes in chapter twelve of the book, then what are the first eleven chapters doing there?

If I wrote a paper for one of my professors at Hamilton, the Hebrew Union college or at Vanderbilt, and the paper had fifty pages, but I didn’t get to the subject of the paper until page twelve, then the professor would justifiably demand that I get to the point sooner.

So, we might ask about Genesis. If we don’t get to the subject of the book until the twelfth of its fifty chapters, what is the point of the first eleven?  

The first chapter of Genesis is a glorious account of creation.  It is not a scientific attempt to explain how the world got here.  It is a religious attempt to explain why.  That is why if people ask if creationism should be taught in science class, my answer is a resounding “no!”

The story of creation is a marvelous poem which sets forth the basic assumptions about life under which the Bible and all of subsequent Jewish thought operates.  It teaches four main points.

First, God is the initiator of creation.  Second, creation is not an accident.  It has purpose and meaning.  If life has purpose and meaning, then our lives have purpose and meaning.

Third, in the Creation story.  Everything prior to humanity is created by simple declaration or divine fiat.  God says “let there be, and there was…’  Let there be light…let there be dry land… let there be vegetation…  Only when the story describes the creation of man and women do we read, “And God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, in the very image of God and they shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and everything that creeps on earth…”  In other words, God created us to be in charge of and responsible for this earth and charged us with the awesome task of creating the just caring, compassionate society.  Note well, nowhere does it say that God creates that society, or that God makes us create that society.  It is only clear that God want us to create that society.

Chapters 2-11 delineate three attempts on the part of the Almighty to have us humans do just that.  They are the society in Eden, the society after Eden until the time of the flood, and the society following the flood.  None of these societies work. None becomes the type of society God yearns for us to create.   Let us take a closer look at them.  Each has its own set of ground rules—operating principles under which the societies function.

Eden for example was a place of no birth, no death, (I would argue though some may differ) no sex) and no need to work hard.  I argue for no sex because sex leads to procreation.  And really you can only have it one of two ways, a world like Eden with neither birth nor death or a world like ours with both birth and death.  A world with birth and no death would quickly be overrun, and a world with death but no birth would quickly die out.

Now whatever our religious conviction, it is clear that society in Eden did not work.  For traditional Christianity the eating of the forbidden fruit represents the Fall of Humanity.  

According to that interpretation, we had it made!  God gave us everything we 

 could possibly want asking only that we not eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  We blew it! We ate from the tree and God expelled us from paradise.  In our act of disobedience, we separated ourselves so far from God, that we are powerless on our own to repair the breach.  But, according to traditional Christian doctrine, God gave us a second chance.  He sent us his only begotten son and if we believe in the saving power of Jesus’ life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension to heaven, we can overcome the chasm created by this original sin.

For traditional Judaism it was also a sin that the first couple ate the forbidden fruit.   We suffer because we do not live in Eden anymore, but we can under our own power and through our own actions approach God on our own.  We need no intermediary, and Jesus plays no role in our theology.

A third way to look at the story is more radical.  Life in Eden was pristine but dull.  It was boring.  There was no challenge, no purpose.

After a long year of work I am so very eager to take a vacation.  I can think of nothing more enticing than to lie on a beach with no worries or responsibilities, be able to reach up whenever my heart desires and pick a piece of non pesticide infested fruit with which to nourish myself and lie on the warm sand and let the clear blue waters lap against my toes.  I would enjoy this immensely—for about a week.  Maybe this past year I could have used ten days.  

But then I would start to look— as I suspect most of us would – for something meaningful to do something that would make a difference.  This is how I can imagine Adam and Eve felt in the Garden.  What I am suggesting is that the eating of the fruit—far from being the fall of man—represented the elevation of man into a creature ready to accept the challenge of finding meaning and purpose in life.

But however we look at the story, the Eden society did not work.  So out went the first couple to live with new ground rules outside the Garden.  Those new ground rules thrust them into a life where people had sex, were born, people died, and people had to work to earn a living.  Unfortunately, that society went quickly downhill with the murder of Abel by Cain.  The descent was rapid until God decided to destroy the world because it was filled with lawlessness and violence

 By the way there are many flood stories in the literature of the ancient near east.  Of them all, though, only the biblical flood story is cast in moral terms.  Only the biblical flood occurs because a good, caring God, desiring humanity to set up a just, caring, compassionate society is frustrated y humanity’s inability or unwillingness to do so.  Only in the biblical flood story does God choose the hero because he alone was righteous in his age!

So, Noah builds the ark, takes the animals and his family aboard, and survives the flood.  The flood ends and the curtain rises on society number three—a new society with new ground rules.  Like society number two the third society was a place of work, sexuality, birth and death.  

In addition, though, God adds three new ground rules in this third attempt to make the world work.  For the first time God gives humanity permission to eat meat.  God charges humanity with responsibility for brining to justice and punishing those who shed blood.  In other words, human beings must hold other human beings accountable for their actions.  And finally, God forswears the option of destroying the physical world again and starting over.  God says: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gn 8:22)

Unfortunately, the third society works out little better than the other two.  Noah immediately gets drunk.  Ham his youngest commits some unmentionable act against his father that brings a curse upon him.  

Then there is the story of the Tower of Babel—which depicts humanity’s seeming attempt to overthrow God.  Yes, society three is working out little if any better than the other two.  But now God has a dilemma.  God still cares about the world.  As much as ever God wants to see humanity create a world of justice, caring and peace, but God is still dissatisfied.  Furthermore, God has promised not to destroy the world again.  So, what is God to do?  The answer is: that God picks one individual one family and says to Abraham: “Go forth form your native land, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  (GN 12:1) And that begins the Covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants.

From a Jewish perspective God’s choice of Abraham is neither whimsical nor unexplained.  God chose Abraham because of his suitedness for the task.

Two Midrashic stories illustrate.

 When Abraham was born the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter.  Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born that will overthrow his kingdom, and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. Abraham’s father hides him in a cave.

At the age of three he walks out of the cave and being a most precocious child asks: “Who created the heavens and the earth and me?”  He looked up at the sun and imagined that was the creative force.  So, he worshipped it all day.  That night the moon came out. And he thought the moon must be stronger than the sun.  So, he worshipped the moon all night.  When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that their must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation.  So according to this story, Abraham at a very young age chose God, and that helps explain why God chose him

Another story tells that when Abraham was a boy his father Terach was a merchant who had a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods.  One day, Terach had to go on a trip and left Abraham in charge of the store.  While he was cleaning up, he accidentally broke one of the idols.  Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.

When his father came home, he demanded that Abraham tell him what happened.

Abraham answered that the broken idol was misbehaving, and the bigger idol beat him with the stick.

Fool, said his father, “Don’t you know that idols can’t do anything.

“If so,” answered Abraham, “Then why do you worship them?”

The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry and further explains why God chose Abraham to begin the fourth society and present an entirely different idea of and approach to God.    

God tell Abraham “Go forth from your native land and from Your father’s house to the land the I will show you.” (Gn 12:1) Then God makes a Covenant with Abraham in which the Almighty promises to Abraham and his descendants:  Protection, progeny, permanence as a people and the land of Israel.  

In return, Abraham and all of us have to as God said to Abraham, “Be a blessing,” (GN 12:2) “Walk in My ways and be worthy” (GN 17:1), and work to create a society and teach your children to create a society based on “justice and righteousness.” (Gn 18:19)

That is still our charge today.  God chose Abraham and all of us his descendants because the world before him did not live up to God’s hopes and dreams.  Will the world of the future?

  The answer is in our hands!

For Jews “Earth Day” is (at Least) 1800 years Old

After Chanukah the next special occasion in the Jewish year is Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees. This year Tu B’Shevat corresponds to January 28. 

It is first and foremost a holiday to remind us of our responsibility to care for the environment.

In the United States we began celebrating “Earth Day” in 1970. Earth Day responded to a need to recognize and take cognizance of our human responsibility to protect our environment. Here on our sanctuary Island of Sanibel, there are, thankfully, many different initiatives that promote environmental awareness and care. 

Last year young Greta Thunberg became TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for focusing the world’s attention on our neglect of the environment.

Our festival of environmental awareness, Tu B’Shevat, is first mentioned in the Mishnah, compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE.  That means we Jews began observing our “Earth Day” and publicly focusing on environmental awareness for at least 1800 years. 

.  In chapter seven of the Midrash Kohelet Rabbah we read:  “After the creation of the world God addressed the first couple, Adam and Eve, and told them to take care of this world and all of its beauty and abundance.  Beware, though, God reminded them, of destroying or polluting this earth because it is the only one we shall have. “

In the late 1980’s, when I served as Rabbi in Nashville, Albert Gore, then a U.S. Senator from Tennessee, began convening seminars which led to his book and movie about the environment which eventually won him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007.  At the first of these occasions Senator Gore invited me to share a closing homily that concretized this concern.  On that occasion I shared the following story:

Once upon a time — long ago –there was a goat with horns so long that when he stretched his neck, they grazed the sky and caused the stars to sing the most beautiful melody anyone had ever heard.  One day a man was walking through the forest thinking of buying a gift for his wife’s birthday when he encountered the goat.  Seeing his beautiful horns he thought to cut a small piece off of one to make a jewelry box for his wife. He asked the goat if he could do so, and the goat being a friendly sort agreed.  When friends saw the lovely jewelry box, everyone wanted one.  Then many people each took just a little bit of the goat’s precious horn for his or her own use.  As a result the stars no longer sing.  

For me this story conveys the essential message of Tu B’Shevat:  If we destroy it, we shall never have another one.

Jack Boshak

(In loving memory)

“Sunrise, sunset.” How quickly in retrospect the years have passed.

Jack was the brother I never had.  I was 15 when we met, and he took me under his wing.  He taught me a lot about how to act around girls, and I credit his tutelage for refining my approach enough that – years later — I could attract and win the love of someone as wonderful as Vickie.

When I first met him, I thought his name was French and would be spelled Jacques Beaushaque. It did not take me long to realize that the straightforward American way, Jack Boshak, far better suited his personality and character.

When “Chelle met Jack, her whole life changed. Almost from that day to this her life revolved around him. I marvel at the way she anticipated and took care of his every need. In turn his love for her knew no bounds through 57 years of marriage, laden with so much happiness, and yes, some tears. Most notably, Jack and ‘Chelle shared with Leah and Scott the searing pain of the death of their son Simon.

From a very young age, Jack knew the value of hard work. From selling Good Humor Ice Cream on Rockaway Beach on torrid summer days to his “business ventures” like those absurd pedal cars in the garage and the Heidi Vending machines, which he thought every candy store in New Jersey should have. I still remember visiting some of those stores with him.

Jack graduated from Rider College and passed his CPA exam on the first try.  No mean feat! 

He was a mathematical whiz, and I always marveled at his facility with numbers. I thought of him as a human calculator.

And he was a marvelous accountant.  Jack was fiercely independent; I could never imagine him being happy working for anyone else. Jack was a no-frills CPA, as symbolized by what I liked to call the “Boshak Building” that once housed his office on Route 9.

Jack had a gruff exterior — and God help you if you were a client who missed an appointment — but his heart was as tender as that of anyone I have ever known.

When Jack and ‘Chelle married I was 18, and they honored me by inviting me to be Head Usher at their wedding.  I should have been thrilled, but I was 18, immature and stupid. I thought I should be Best Man even though Jack’s older brother Howie, of blessed memory, was appropriately accorded that honor. But Jack went the extra mile to soothe my feelings and made us “co best men.”  He always had my back.

One of the very worst days of my life occurred 50 years ago when, while studying in Jerusalem, I got the news in the middle of the night that our father had died. The long flight home from Israel was exhausting and excruciatingly sad. But I still remember how the cloud began to lift when I saw Jackie waiting to greet me at Newark Airport.  I can’t describe how, but just seeing him made me feel better.

Jack’s character is best reflected through the prism of his four wonderful daughters. They are each so different. Yet Jack nurtured and understood each of them according to their unique personalities and needs.

Jack was a very proud Jew. It was who he was, and he and Rochelle infused that essence into the souls of Toby, Heather, Leah and Danna.  His daughters’ B’not Mitzvah were high points in his life.  Instead of a fancy celebration he and ‘Chelle gifted each daughter with an unforgettable trip to Israel with just her parents following her Bat Mitzvah.

A few sunrises later Paul, K. Paul and Scott became his sons.  His grandchildren, Libby, Sadye, Jocelyn, Maya, Eli, Liam and Felix were his delight. His crowning glory was the privilege and the blessing to share the joy of all of their B’nai Mitzvah celebrations. I can still see his beaming face and the tears of joy that streamed from it as he sat in the front of the three sanctuaries where these seven ceremonies took place.

Jack loved the fact that his daughters and their families remained close by as adults. Oh, it did not thrill him last year when Danna moved so far away from the family compound on Tuscarora Circle to study the behavior of large apes.  But it gave him comfort that his baby had found an outlet for her formidable intellect and considerable talents about which she is passionate. 

After these last few years of declining health, the sun has set for the last time on Jackie’s earthly journey. As a brother I worry about what will happen to Rochelle whose soul has been bound up with his for nearly sixty years. 

But I also know – for longer than anyone – how strong my sister is and that — strengthened by her wonderful daughters, sons in law and seven amazing grandchildren — she will endure. Yes, I know she will endure just as Jackie’s memory will endure in all of our hearts, for a blessing.


If They Accused You of Being Jewish, Would There Be Enough Evidence to Convict You?

When I addressed the Kristallnacht commemoration of the Sarasota-Manatee Federation in November, a couple was in the Zoom room who belonged to the first Congregation I served in Columbia, Maryland. They contacted Vickie and me, and the outdoor lunch we enjoyed together was the first time we had seen them since 1984.

As we ate, the woman shared, “I remember very few of the hundreds of sermons I have heard over the years, but I distinctly remember one of yours. You asked, ‘If they accused you of being Jewish, would there be enough evidence to convict you.’”

Flattered by and thankful for the memory jog, I remembered that I envisioned an investigator examining our homes and our lifestyles to determine whether enough about us would convince a jury that we were indeed Jews.

Some of the things the investigator would look for are: Is there Jewish art on the walls? Are there Jewish books on the shelves? Is there a connection with the Jewish community through synagogue, federation, JCC and/or Jewish charities?

Looking at our tradition, the great first century Sage, Shimon Ha Tzadik postulated the balanced tripod of Jewish living: “Al Shelosha Devarim — Upon three things the world stands`: Torah, worship and deeds of kindness and compassion.” (Pirke Avot 1;2)

Recently my friend and colleague Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin shared a modern iteration of Shimon Ha-Tzadik’s famous teaching that he learned from, Rabbi Neil Gilman, of blessed memory, renowned former Professor of Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The idea is that there are “Three H’s” of Jewish life, “Head, Heart, and Hand.” The head stands for intellectual engagement with Judaism or serious Jewish study. The Heart represents prayer, worship and liturgy, and the Hand stands for Social Justice initiatives and other acts of kindness and service to others.

Taking the analogy of a college student Rabbi Gilman’s thesis is that a “good Jew” must “Major” in one of the three H’s, and minor in another. If he or she has some familiarity with or connection to the third, so much the better.

I find the Three H model very useful as we navigate our identity as Jews in the secular world.

Fortunately, the Torah presents us with excellent role models of highly successful Jews who enjoyed high station in the secular world, but who did not forsake their Jewish identity.

Joseph and Moses, of course, lived long before there was organized Jewish learning or worship, but their “Hands” – their actions—clearly indicated the primacy of their connection to the covenant of their ancestors.

For all his success in Egypt, Joseph made his brothers swear that his ultimate resting place would not be in Egypt, but in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Moses was an Egyptian prince, but, as tradition has it, his mother Yocheved inculcated in him the Jewish Covenantal values of justice, caring and compassion which emerged when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Later, when he had established a new life for himself as Chief Shepherd over his father in law’s vast flock, Moses could not resist God’s call to return to Egypt and take up the task of freeing his people from bondage.

These examples bid us to ask: How do our Jewish soul’s call to us? Is it through the study of our text and traditions? Is it through regular worship and participation in synagogue life? Or is it through Social Action or acts of kindness to others. If we “major in one of these, minor in another and hopefully, have some involvement with the third, then, without question if they accused us of being Jewish, there would be ample evidence to convict us.

Please Join Us!

As this unprecedented year comes to a close, we all pray the coming year will be better. Still it is good to note that technology has enabled us to connect with one another in ways we never imagined previously.

At Bat Yam Temple of the Islands our services and classes have reached far beyond the beautiful Island on which we are privileged to live.

People from as far away as Australia, South Africa and Hawaii have participated in meaningful seminars, lectures, services and classes.

No one pretends that these opportunities are nearly so satisfying as being together in-person, but technology has opened new doors and enabled us to make lemonade out of the bunch of lemons that have fallen on us.

Personally, neither my wife Vickie nor I have travelled further than local stores since November 2019. We will continue to be very careful and urge all of you to do the same. 

Hopefully the unconscionable snafus that have made the rollout of the vaccine more part of the problem than part of the solution will resolve themselves soon.

Still the prospects are that for the next few months, at least, prudence will dictate staying safe and socially distanced. Of course, that means avoiding large crowds and public events. So, let’s get together virtually.

A cordial invitation

We at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands extend a cordial invitation to all those interested to join us for our Shabbat Eve Service each Friday evening at 7:30, our Shabbat morning Study of the weekly Torah portion, each Saturday morning at 9:30 and for our exciting array of lectures and seminars each Wednesday at 11:00 AM.  On Wednesday, January 6, 2021 at 11 AM we shall hear from Lenny Hochschild of San Francisco on, “The Economics of Climate Change and Its Importance to Judaism.”

In addition, our “Sacred Clergy Partner,” Dr. John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC Church and I will present a three-session class, January 13, 20 and 27, at 9:15 AM on the “Life and Legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.”

If you would like to participate in any of our events, please send an email to batyamsanibel@gmail.com, and a member of our amazing Tech Team will provide you with the necessary links. We would love to have you.

With best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Bye 2020! Don’t Let the Door Hit You in the …

Is anyone sorry to see 2020 come to an end? If so, I have not met them.

When Vickie and I visited Tokyo in 2012 we noticed a smattering of people in trains stations and on the streets, who wore masks. Why, we wondered, do they need to do that? Never did I imagine, I would live in a time when medical masks would be an essential part of all of our wardrobes here in the United States.  

If you are like me, you thrive on hugs. But since my last birthday on March 16, I have not hugged anyone except my beautiful wife Vickie who is an incalculable blessing in my life.

We are blessed with three wonderful children, three wonderful spouses of our children, and six wonderful grandchildren. I have a wonderful sister and brother in law and many nieces, nephews and cousins. It has been many long months since I have hugged or been in the same room with any of them.

Our oldest grandson celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in November.  Since the day he was born, I dreamed about what that day would be like. But when it arrived, he was in San Francisco, and Vickie and I were in Florida watching the ceremony on a computer screen.

I am very grateful for Zoom technology, but, even though it allows people who could not have come in person due to distance or frailty to participate, it is a poor substitute for interacting with people face to face.

As a rabbi I feel the void at not being able to look my congregants in the eye and read their reactions as we pray and study together.

As disorienting and unpleasant as the pandemic has been for me, I know full well, how piddling my hardships are compared to so many others. Who have:

  • lost their lives
  • lost their jobs
  • lost their homes
  • lost their loved ones
  • suffered from hunger

The pandemic has hit so many millions of Americans and people around the world with the full force of the combined plagues we read about in the Book of Exodus.

My prayer is simple and unoriginal:

May the new year dawn with hope for worldwide immunization against the horrible Covid-19 virus!

  May we return to our normal way of living with greater appreciation for the many blessings we enjoy!

And may the Eternal One bring comfort and healing to those who have suffered devastating losses and may we all be blessed to face the future with hope and courage!


My Favorite Christmas Song

Christmas Day 2020

. Back before religious observance, Bible reading and prayers were banned from public school classrooms, I sat silently and self-consciously in music class at Ashland School in East Orange, NJ, as everyone sang, “Silent Night”, “O Holy Night” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,”, “The First Noel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and several other carols with an overtly Christian message.

My discomfort in music class at this time of year not withstanding I have always appreciated the beauty of Christmas music.

 Performing “O Holy Night” at the annual East Orange High School Christmas concert was called “the honor solo.” I understand that a couple of years before I arrived Marie Dionne Warrick, later to adopt the name Dionne Warwick, had that honor.

Yes, many of the religious Christmas Carols are hauntingly beautiful and inspiring. With no disrespect to any of them, though,  my favorite Christmas song today is not a brilliant musical composition, but a catchy tune, a top ten pop hit in 1967, with a message that sends goosebumps down my back every time I hear it: “Snoopy’s Christmas,” by the Royal Guardsmen.

The song echoes the theme articulated by the eighth pre-Christian century prophets, Isaiah and Micah who dreamed of world where, “they shall not hurt or destroy in all My Holy Mountain … where they shall beat their swords into plowshare and study war no more, where everyone shall sit under his/her vine and fig tree with non to make them afraid.”

Many of the Carols mentioned above beautifully offer that message, but the image of two sworn enemies laying down their arms, perhaps only for a day, resonates with me in a very special way.

And so, to my Christian friends celebrating today, I wish you every blessing and the realization of every hope that the Story of Jesus’ birth evokes for you. And I pray that one day, the “Christmas Bells” will indeed bring “peace to all the world and good will to man,” not just on this day but every day.

Snoopy’s Christmas (1967), The Royal Guardsmen

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum
Do kannst mir sehr gefallen! 

The news had come out in the First World War 
The bloody Red Baron was flying once more 
The Allied command ignored all of its men 
And called on Snoopy to do it again

Was the night before Christmas, 40 below 
When Snoopy went up in search of his foe 
He spied the Red Baron, fiercely they fought 
With ice on his wings Snoopy knew he was caught

Christmas bells those Christmas bells 
Ring out from the land 
Asking peace of all the world 
And good will to man 

The Baron had Snoopy dead in his sights 
He reached for the trigger to pull it up tight 
Why he didn’t shoot, well, we’ll never know 
Or was it the bells from the village below?

Christmas bells those Christmas bells 
Ringing through the land 
Bringing peace to all the world 
And good will to man 

The Baron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine 
And forced him to land behind the enemy lines 
Snoopy was certain that this was the end 
When the Baron cried out, “Merry Christmas, mein friend!” 

The Baron then offered a holiday toast 
And Snoopy, our hero, saluted his host 
And then with a roar they were both on their way 
Each knowing they’d meet on some other day

Christmas bells those Christmas bells 
Ringing through the land …

He Never Knew He Was an Angel

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.



It might be the most moving address in all literature.”

That is the way my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s appeal to Joseph, which begins parashat Va-yigash.  The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph –so moved by Judah’s words- reveals himself to his brothers. 

We wonder though, why Joseph treated his brothers so harshly? Why did he accuse them of being spies? Why did he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why did he instruct his steward to put his special goblet into Benjamin’s bag? 

Some commentators suggest that Joseph’s motive was revenge.

The brothers sold Joseph as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes, “At first and understandably, Joseph thought of revenge . . . He still wants revenge more than he wants love . . .” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 271).  Later, (P. 284) Plaut writes, “Joseph first faces his brothers in bitterness and devises a cat-and-mouse game in order to have his revenge . . .” 

If, however, revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused.

If Joseph wanted revenge, he would not have said, “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you . . . So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45: 5,8)

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive.  Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed. 

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone.  As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. 

With Joseph gone, Benjamin, the only remaining son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son. 

Judah knows what is at stake.   

Although he was in no way responsible for Benjamin’s plight (in contrast to his pivotal role in the sale of Joseph as a slave years ago) Judah steps forward (Genesis 44:18-34) and stirringly describes the events that have transpired.  He then tells his disguised brother that Benjamin’s imprisonment in Egypt will be too much for their aged father to bear, and he will die.  Then, Judah offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph –who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence– needs to hear in order to end the charade.  

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’ alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)]. 

In Parashat Va-yigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story explains his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” are derived from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past. 

(I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary. )