Hopefully, Next Year

Today would have been the day.

Today was the day Vickie and I were to begin six exciting weeks of teaching in German High Schools about the Shoah, and when I would be speaking in churches and synagogues.

I was also particularly looking forward to celebrating our 46th anniversary on June 9 with our hosts Pastors Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening at the exquisite Fuchsbau (Fox Den) Restaurant. We loved the idea of celebrating our anniversary in a restaurant we could imagine was named after us.

The next day we were to travel to Berlin where I had been invited to participate in the ordination ceremony at the Abraham Geiger College, I was also to teach a three-hour seminar there and lead the service and deliver the sermon at Friday night worship.

From there our schedule called for us to travel to Leipzig, the city where my father was arrested on Kristallnacht to take part in a week long series of events for descendants of Leipzig’s once thriving Jewish community.

My bittersweet birthday present to myself on March 16 was to cancel our entire trip.  At that time I wondered if I was being prudently proactive or presumptuously premature. After two more weeks went by it was clear that cancelling was the only decision to make.

It feels strange to be staying in Sanibel now, as our time in Germany has become so important to Vickie and me as part of our quest to do our small part to try to make the world a better place.

For the past five years we spent between five and ten weeks there doing the things I described above.  Before coming to Sanibel in 2017 we were there for ten weeks in the fall. There I had the privilege of conducting services for the High holy Days in Kiel, Bad Segeberg and Freiburg. When we accepted the invitation to serve Bat Yam Temple of the Islands here in Sanibel, the expectation, of course, was that we would be here for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  So we switched our program to the late spring and shortened it considerably.

This would have been the first year our hosts, Pastors Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening would have hosted us in their new home in Bad Oldesloe and the first we did not spend in their previous home in Bad Segeberg.  We looked forward to experiencing their new surroundings and to exploring a new town in picturesque Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost of Germany’s 16 states.

A few weeks after cancelling the trip I stopped playing tennis even though I know the warm sunshine and vigorous exercise did me a world of good. That was another bittersweet present I gave to myself.

Just today, Vickie and went to the courts for the first time in a month and hit for about half an hour.

We came in contact with no one and wiped our rackets down when we finished. It is nice to be back on the courts, and I will follow the United States Tennis Association guidelines to play prudently.

Playing tennis again will be a small consolation for missing our time and the people we have come to enjoy so much in Germany! Hopefully we will be able to go back next year.

Paris! Hope in the Face of Terror

Dr. Daniel Havemann, The Probst of the Lutheran Church in Segeberg, standing with me in the Marien Cathedral after my sermon on November 15, 2015
Dr. Daniel Havemann, The Probst of the Lutheran Church in Segeberg, standing with me in the Marien Cathedral after my sermon on November 15, 2015

The Probst of the Lutheran Churches of Bad Segeberg, Dr. Daniel Havemann, has been incredibly gracious, kind and welcoming to Vickie and me. He invited me to preach the first sermon I delivered in Germany in 2014 in the historic Marien Cathedral in Bad Segeberg. This year he invited me to preach at the end of my visit. It is as though Dr Havemann’s friendship and authority created a protective and comforting bracket around our extended stays in Germany.

Our joy, of course, paled against the anger and sadness caused by the horrific attacks on Paris.

Pundits are telling us to accustom ourselves to this new reality of dozens of people mercilessly murdered by savage forces in the name of religion.

I refuse to do so.

Fittingly the text about which Dr. Havemann requested I preach—long before the Paris event—was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

No text could have been more fitting.

Our Rabbinic Sages probably could not have imagined the magnitude of the attack on Paris. They had no concept of mass coordinated assaults on innocent civilians in sports stadiums and theaters with sub machine guns and other weapons of mass destruction.

But because the Torah tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah were so wicked that The Eternal One destroyed them, our Sages’ fertile minds gave us graphic pictures of how depraved those societies were.

Three Midrashim

In Sodom visitors had one size bed. If the guest were too tall, they would lop of his legs at the point where he or she would fit. If the person was too short for the bed, they stretched him until he fit. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109B)

Another Midrash tells of one of Lot’s daughters who violated a law of the city against feeding the poor. In Sodom that was a capital crime, and Lot’s daughter cried out to the Eternal One to save her from the punishment of being burned alive for her offense. (Pike d’Rabbi Eliezer 25; Bereshit Rabbah 49:6)

There was also a law in Sodom against welcoming guests into one’s home. Of course, the Torah tells us that Lot violated this law by not only welcoming guests but also protecting them from the assault of an angry mob outside.

Lot’s wife, though, the Midrash teaches, wanted to betray her husband to the authorities of Sodom. She went to neighbors to borrow salt because, she said, her husband wanted to offer a tasty meal to her guests. That is the reason, the Midrash concludes, that Lot’s wife was eventually turned into a pillar of salt. (Bereshit Rabbah, 51:5; 50:4)

Yes, the depravity of Sodom parallels the depravity of those who attacked Paris. Anger and rage are appropriate responses, but despair is not.

Our tradition forbids us to abandon hope that things can be better. It is for that reason that Israel’s national anthem is called, “התקוה, Ha-Tikvah, The Hope.”

Another story (that I first heard from Ambassador David Saperstein when he spoke at the congregation I served, Temple Isaiah in Columbia MD in the late 70’s makes this point:

Once there was a man who travelled to Sodom every day asking the people there to repent their evil ways and to change. The scoffed at him and mocked him. But every day he would return with the same message of repentance.

When he returned home his wife and family chided him, “Why do you go down there day after day? Don’t you know those people will never change and become like you?”

“You may be right,” the man would answer. “Perhaps those people will never change and become like me. But I must go down there—day after day—so that God forbid, I do not become like them.”

And so

Even in the face of wickedness that defies description, we must never abandon hope.

We must continue to dream of and work—each in our own small ways–to bring nearer the day of which the prophets dreamed when:

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal One as the sea bed is covered by water. (Isaiah 11:9)

And all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees with none to make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)