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.

AN END TO THE CHARADE

 

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. ) 

Chanukah is like an Artichoke

You peel an artichoke from its outside layers all the way into its innermost heart. So too over the centuries Chanukah has developed layers of understanding, each of which has a contemporary message.

At its outermost and most recent layer, Chanukah has become a symbol of overt Jewish pride.

Since the first public lighting of a large hanukkiah in Union Square, San Francisco in 1975, such ceremonies have proliferated all over the world from Siberia to this year for the first time, Sanibel Island in Florida. These ceremonies literally bring Jews out of the woodwork, many who practice few if any other Jewish rituals throughout the year— turn out to publicly affirm their Jewish identity and pride.

The next inner layer is the famous story of the “little cruse of oil that lasted for eight days.

The story appears for the first time in the Talmud (B. Shabbat 21B) at the very least 300 years after the true events of the Hanukah story.  It is a lovely story about how when we finally defeated the Assyrian Greek troops, we wanted to rededicate the holy temple in Jerusalem by rekindling the flame that burned continually on the altar. Alas, only a small cruse of oil was found, enough to last for one day, and it takes eight days to prepare new oil. Miraculously, the legend tells, the “little cruse of oil lasted for eight days.”

This story, familiar to every Jewish religious school child is charming, but it is actually as close to the “real” reason we celebrate Chanukah as Santa Claus is to the real reason committed Christians celebrate Christmas.

For the real story of Hanukah, we have to delve to the next layer of the artichoke.

 In the second pre-Christian century a civil war broke out among the Jews of Judaea. At that time, Judaea was under the rule of the Assyrian Greek Seleucid empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

The conflict pitted the wealthy who wanted to assimilate into Greek culture against those Jews who wanted to remain loyal to their religious practices. When the conflict reached the point where Jews were fighting against Jews in the streets of Jerusalem, Antiochus sent in his troops to quell the fighting and to solve the problem by outlawing all Jewish practice and study.

For the first time in history, though, an armed struggle for religious liberty ensued. After a three year battle the Maccabees drove Antiochus’ troops from Judaea and won the right to practice their religion. During the years that Antiochus outlawed Judaism, his troops had polluted the Temple and sacrificed forbidden pigs on the sacred altar. Chanukah means” dedication. When the Jews rededicated their Temple, they declared an eight-day festival to compensate for the main fall harvest festival of Sukkot that had been proscribed.

But at an even more inner layer, Chanukah is a winter “festival of lights” to bring light to the darkest time of the year.

In that regard it is similar to many ancient cultures that found ways to celebrate light near the time of the winter solstice. It is human nature for as long as we can remember to celebrate light at the darkest time of the year.

What does that mean to us?

So many people live in darkness, and we have the power through saying nice things or doing kindly acts to bring light into their lives.

The famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 -1894) was a sickly boy. The winters in his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland are cold and dark. Each evening back then Leerie the Lamplighter would light the gas streetlights in his neighborhood. Here is what a small act of kindness meant to a sickly young boy:

The Lamplighter

by Robert Louis Stevenson

My tea is nearly ready, and the sun has left the sky.

It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by.

Each night when it is teatime, and before you take your seat

With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,

And my papá’s a banker and as rich as he can be,

But I, when I am stronger, and can choose what I would do,

O Leerie, I’ll go ‘round at night and light the lamps with you

For we are very lucky with a lamp before our door

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more

And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight.

That poem expresses the true heart of Chanukah’s message. Each of us has the power to bring light into someone else’s life And each time we use that power, we make our world a better and brighter place.

To Seek the Blessing

With the celebration of Thanksgiving fresh in ourminds, the Torah reading this week reaches the climax of the Story of Jacob. I see a connection. In my mind these two seemingly different topics dovetail beautifully.

Life can often be very difficult. In 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Governor Wilbur Cross of Connecticut appealed to the indomitable human spirit in his Thanksgiving proclamation: “It has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator… for the blessing that have been our common lot … for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long search after truth; for liberty and for justice… that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our harvest Home.”

With these mighty words Governor Cross looked beyond the ravages of the Great Depression that affected every citizen and inspired people to seek and find the blessings in their lives. It was the same quality exhibited by our patriarch Jacob who also overcame trial and tribulation to seek and find a blessing from God.

But, you might ask, “A blessing! What right and what hope should Jacob have had to seek a blessing from God?”  Had he not taken advantage of his older brother Esau to extort the lion’s share of the family inheritance from him?  Had he not stood before his blind father swearing he was Esau in order to steal his father’s blessing?  

People fairly ask: “Why does an unsavory character like Jacob become Israel, the namesake of the Jewish people?  Why do you take your name from a trickster and a thief?”

It is a good question, and it has good answers.

First of all, Jacob paid and paid for his evil deeds.  We would not be wrong if we counted the years after he left home as twenty years of hard time in the Laban Penitentiary in Haran. Laban tricked him time and again, and “often,” Jacob exclaimed, “scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night.  Sleep fled from my eyes.”

Second, he honestly and eagerly sought Esau’s forgiveness, and he did not merely attempt to placate his brother with empty words.  The size of the gift Jacob insisted Esau accept-and to his credit Esau was reluctant to do so — more than compensated his brother for the loss of the birthright inheritance.

And last and most important, Jacob is our role model and our namesake because despite every reason for doing so, he refused to give up hope. 

He stumbled and fell, as we all do.  He paid for his misdeeds many times over.  And when it seemed that all was lost, he wrestled with everything he had been and everything that he had done.  He proclaimed to the Eternal One  in the midst of his struggle, “I will not let You go until You bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Though the encounter left him wounded, he wrenched genuine blessing from the depths of his anguish and found the ability to face the future with courage and hope.  In that, I submit, he is a wonderful role model for all of us!

Why Chanukah is Important

Many people think of the eight-day festival of Chanukah, which runs this year from the evening of December 10 – December 18, as “the Jewish answer to Christmas.” 

Others have learned that Chanukah is about “a little cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days.” The truth is the cruse of oil is no more the reason Jews celebrate Chanukah than Santa Claus is the reason committed Christians celebrate Christmas. 

Here then is a short summary of why Chanukah is important:

 Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), peace and prosperity reigned, but tension lurked beneath the surface.  The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, and they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.

At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea.  One group was Jews loyal to their religion and their ancient Covenant with God.  They wanted to preserve and practice their ancient heritage.

There was another group of Jews at that time as well.  Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks.  They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.

So, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion.  They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city state.  If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business.  Instead of studying the Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.

There was much tension between these two groups of Jews, and eventually they started fighting with each other.  It was a Jewish civil war.

When he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea, Antiochus sent in his troops.  He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.

The Maccabees (the name adopted by the Jews who took up arms against Antiochus’ army) fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea.  They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!

The Story of Chanukah teaches is an important lesson for all of us today.  Religious freedom and the right to be different are precious rights that we should never take for granted. 

Thanksgiving Prayer

Bridging the Gap

Between Deuteronomy 15:4 and 15:11

For many years I have pondered the contradiction found in the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy.  Verse four says:  “There shall be no needy among you.” But a few sentences later in verse eleven, we read, “The poor shall never cease out of the land.” As Thanksgiving approaches, I have written the following poem to address the contradiction. 

Thanksgiving soon will be here,

A grand and special day, 

So I opened up the Good Book

To see what it has to say.

I find in Deuteronomy

A glorious proclamation:

“There shall be no needy among you 

In any land or nation!” (15:4)

What a glorious vision that is!

If only it were true,

But I note a few lines further 

That we have much work to do

“There will never cease to be those in want,” (15:11)

The very next paragraph reads.

How can two such opposite views

Be almost rubbing knees?

The answer lies between 

The conflicting thoughts we heard,

But we must follow closely

And take to heart God’s words!

There will be no poor about!

That will only happen when,

All of us work together

To make that time “Now,’ not “Then!”

But we all know the time’s not near

When all will heed God’s wish

So those of us who really care 

Must step up to the dish.

Those of us who’ll read this

Are comfortable no doubt.

But all too many on God’s earth 

Surely do without

Without a home to keep them dry

And clothes to keep them warm

From snow and sleet and wind and rain

From every passing storm

Others strive just to exist

Without enough to eat

Try feeding five on minimum wage.

That’s surely no mean feat.

And don’t forget those in our midst

Who have much that they own,

But suffer sadness deep inside

And feel so all alone.

Loneliness was always real

But now things are much worse

In this time of the Pandemic

It’s a veritable curse.

“For just such a time as this,” (Esther 4:4)

God calls on us to serve

Because so many suffer

And lack what they deserve

A sense that life has purpose

And hope for a new day

Will continue to elude too many

Before Corona goes away.

So let’s focus on the “Giving”

This coming holiday

To enrich the lives of those who lack

In a meaningful way!

 There is so much

That still needs to be done,

Before our world and God’s will

Truly become one!

May we give thanks for all our blessings

With hearts and hands unfurled

To embrace God’s challenge to us

To repair our broken world!

It is Election Day, and I Am Very Sad

It is Election Day, and I am very sad.

A CNN headline explains why: “Officials brace for lines and lawsuits as the polls open on Election Day.”

I am old enough to remember when we greeted Election Day as a real holiday – a joyous celebration of a free and open balloting to choose our countries leaders.

Opposing candidates disagreed on the issues – often strongly – but the personal attacks, insults and accusations of criminal behavior were not part of the tableau.

I am beyond distressed by the news clips of people standing outside in frigid weather waiting hours to cast their ballots Why?  Voting is both a right and great privilege of American citizenship. Our country owes all of its citizens sufficient polling places with sufficient staff to ensure that no one must wait an inordinate amount of time to vote.

In all my 53 years of voting – wherever I have lived – I never waited more than 15 minutes to vote. Every American citizen should be able to say the same thing. There is no reason that I should have that privilege just because I have always lived in “nice” neighborhoods. 

Counting the ballots

Even in the pre computer days of Paleozoic technology, people voted, the ballots were tabulated and by the next morning at the latest, we knew who had won.

I am sure almost all of us either remember or have seen in history books the early headlines proclaiming Dewey the victor over Truman in the 1948 election.  But by the next day, all was sorted out. 

This year we will wait days, perhaps even weeks to have final results, and the entire process will be marked by cries of fraud. 

Unless the victory of one of the candidates is completely overwhelming, accusations of a crooked election will cast a pall over the entire process

Never in my life have I heard an incumbent temporize when asked if he would accept the results of the election. 

Seriously!

I can imagine the anguish Barack Obama must have felt when after losing the popular ballot by more than 3 million votes, the Electoral College tally made Donald Trump the winner of the 2016 election.

And yet with the grace and class that marked his eight years in the White House, Mr. Obama did all one could ask and more to graciously turn over the reins of power.

Unlike many, I do not call for the abolition of the Electoral College, but I do call for fair and equitable access to our countries sacred right and privilege to vote.

No matter what the outcome of today’s vote, we must continue to work hard to promote the ideals in which we believe and preserve the rights that we see threatened. 

Unlike many, I do not see the end of American democracy hinging on what happens today. But I do see how much is broken and needs fixing in our country. No matter what, we dare not despair.

But still …

It is election day and I am very sad.

An Invitation

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1- Genesis 22:24) Contains two of the Torah’s most important stories. 

We cannot fully understand the vital lessons of the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Binding of Isaac unless we read them in conjunction with one another. 

In addition to these two stories, the portion contains an additional lesson that could very well save your marriage.

For all of these reasons you do not want to miss our Shabbat Welcome Friday evening, November 6 at 7:30 or our Shabbat morning Torah study Saturday, November 7 at 9:30 AM.

An interesting Bat Yam debate has arisen: should our weekly quiz questions be tougher so that winning a virtual candy bar will be more difficult or should the questions continue to encourage as many people as possible to answer? I welcome your thoughts.

In the meantime, this week’s question is: How old is Sarah when Isaac is born?

If you want the Zoom links to these sessions, please send an email to rabbistephenfuchs@gmail.com. If you are answering the virtual candy bar quiz question, please put, “Quiz” in the subject line. 

Why God Chose Abraham

How well I remember the moment that ignited my lifelong passion for teaching how Jews read and understand Scripture!

During an interfaith discussion in 1974, A Christian Minister remarked: “Abraham was like a lottery winner chosen by an unexplained act of God’s Grace.” 

I realized at that moment that many non-Jewish clergy were ignorant of the Jewish interpretations of Scripture found in post-biblical Jewish writings. Replacing that lack of awareness with understanding became a major focus of my life from then on.

Two Midrashic stories illustrate why God’s choice of Abraham was anything but random.

When Abraham was born, the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter (Genesis !0:8-12).  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 there must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation.  (Bet ha-Midrash 2:118ff)

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?” (found in several sources, notably, Bereshit Rabbah 38:13)

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.    

Psalm Comfort in a Time of Uncertainty

Two seemingly contradictory ideas anchor Jewish thought.

On one hand, beginning with Genesis’ story of Creation, is the notion that our lives matter. They have purpose and meaning, and God charges us with responsibility for what happens on this earth.

But there is also an acknowledgment that our lives are but a fleeting eyeblink.

Psalm 8 articulates the contrast:

“When I behold the heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You have established, what is humanity that You are mindful of them, and our progeny that you take notice of them.  But You have made us little lower than the angels and crowned us with honor and glory.” (Psalm 8:4-5)

Psalm 90 further enlightens us:

Of all the 150 Psalms, tradition attributes only Psalm 90 to (the unquestionably all-time most important Jew) Moses. There we read of God’s majestic sovereignty: “Before the mountains were brought forth or even before You formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” (Psalm 90: 2)

The Psalm eloquently reminds us that in God’s view, “A thousand years … are like yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90)

In the grand scheme of things what we deem so crucial will pass by quickly, and our earthly journey will end. But the Psalm urges us to not only be aware of this reality but to confront it head on and, “to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”

During this time of frightful uncertainty, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by Covid-19, the upcoming presidential election and the fears it engenders and whatever individual concerns threaten our well-being.

In the face of all that uncertainty the Psalm concludes with the home that God’s graciousness will be clear to us and that our efforts to make this world a better place really do matter. (Psalm 90:17)

The leading (18th -19th centuries) Hasidic Sage Simcha Bunam taught:  Each of us should have two pockets. In one should be a note, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the other, “For my sake the world was created.”

When we feel puffed up with our sense of importance, we should look at the first note to remind ourselves that we are merely specks of dust.  When we are feeling helpless in the face of the realities that confront us, we should look at the second to reassure ourselves that we are here to make a positive difference in the world in whatever ways we can.

Our tradition urges each of us to find the balance between these polar assertions of Jewish thought. 

 But when life threatens to throw us into complete despair, let us join the urgent prayer of the Psalmist that God will help us. “establish the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90:17) and have faith that our efforts to make a better world really do matter.