Steffi

Steffie's 94th birthday celebration

Steffi’s 94th birthday celebration

Vickie sits with our Pastor friends Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening in the sukkah they built for us at their home in Bad Segeberg, Germany.

Vickie sits with our Pastor friends Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening in the sukkah they built for us at their home in Bad Segeberg, Germany.

A Surprising Request

Vickie and I were thrilled to learn that Pastor Ursula Sieg and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening were coming to visit us in America. When we asked if there was anything special they wanted to do during their visit, they said, “If it is at all possible we would like to travel with you to San Francisco to meet Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg.” Although the request surprised us, it was an opportunity we eagerly embraced.

For our visit to Germany last fall, Ursula created and curated a remarkable exhibit about Stefanie’s life and travels. As a young child, Steffi had to leave her native Breslau and flee to Spain with her parents when the Nazis took over Germany.  Not long thereafter, they had to flee again—this time to Switzerland—during the Spanish Civil War.

Eventually Steffi made her way to New York, then across the country to Los Angeles and ultimately to San Francisco. At 94, she is still active as an artist, who is well-known for her paintings, photography and collages. For several years now, she has done much of her work on her computer. She lives independently and keeps alert and in great shape by attending lots of lectures and classes, and working in her garden. She gave her most recent presentation to the San Francisco Women Artists, of which she is a past president, earlier this year.

“Why do you want to go to Germany?”

When we told her that we planned to spend ten weeks in Germany last fall, Steffi did not like the idea. Given all she had endured at German hands, her reaction did not surprise us.

As the weeks unfolded, it pleased her that her life had become the vehicle for German students to learn about the Holocaust and the basics of Jewish living in a more effective way than books alone could ever teach. Many of these students had never met a living Jew before Vickie and I came to their school.

Never Again!

By the time Vickie and I left Germany, several of the students had sent Steffi very touching emails and voice messages. They wrote that they would do all in their power to insure such horrors never happened again to anyone. The bond the students forged with her has been a healing balm for Steffi.

In addition, Vickie and I had the joy last January of presenting Stefanie Steinberg with an honorary diploma from the Holstenschule in Neumünster accompanied by a beautiful letter of gratitude from the Headmaster. The gesture touched Steffi deeply especially since the Nazi take over in Germany forced this erudite and accomplished woman to suspend her formal education years before she could graduate from high school.

For all of these reasons Steffi was thrilled when Vickie told her that Ursula and Martin were coming to visit her. When the big day came, they embraced like long-time friends. Steffi found more photos to give to her visitors because the exhibit will travel to other schools when Vickie and I return to Germany in September. Then the five of us enjoyed a sumptuous dinner overlooking the Pacific to celebrate Steffi’s 94th birthday.

A Fitting Celebration

It was a wonderful way to honor a remarkable woman whose life and work will always stand to testify against the horror that the Nazis reigned upon Europe. And it was a wonderful way as well to honor two visionary Lutheran pastors who are making heroic efforts to help Germans confront the horror of their past and replant Jewish life in the land where it once bloomed so beautifully.

Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.

Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.

For my German readers: War Gott unfair? Kurzkommentar zu Parashat Hukat (Numeri 19-22:1)

Der Tora-Abschnitt dieser Woche erzählt, dass sich die Israeliten beschweren, weil sie kein Wasser haben. Gott weist Mose an, zu einem bestimmten Felsen zu sprechen, dann wird Wasser heraus kommen. Aber Mose verliert die Beherrschung und haut seinen Stock drei mal gegen den Stein und das Wasser sprudelt heraus (Numbers 20: 10-11).

Gott ist außer sich. Mose ließ es so aussehen, als wenn er, nicht Gott, den Felsen dazu gebracht hätte, Wasser hervor zu bringen.

Doch Gottes Urteil erscheint unangemessen hart.

“Weil du nicht genug Vertrauen hattest mich zu heiligen vor den Augen der Kinder Israels, sollst du sie nicht in das Land führen, dass ich ihnen geben will” (Numeri 20:12).

Wie kann Gott so gemein sein?

Auch wenn wir zustimmen sollten, dass es ein schwer wiegendes Vergehen war, erscheint die Strafe zu schwer.

Letztlich verfehlt das Gerede gegen Gottes Übermaß den springenden Punkt. Moses Zeit war vorüber. Er war zu alt um die Militäroffensive anzuführen, die nötig war um das Verheißene Land zu erobern. Sie erfordert einen jungen, energischen Anführer, dem das Volk ohne Zögern folgt. Das war Josua. Und wenn Mose noch dabei wäre, wenn Josua befiehlt: “Angriff!”, würden einige auf Mose blicken mit der Frage, ob “Angriff!” Wirklich das ist, was sie tun sollten.

Was können wir aus dieser Geschichte lernen?

Jeder von uns hat nur begrenzte Möglichkeiten zu leiten und zu beeinflussen. Wenn unsere Zeit um ist, müssen wir wie Mose, abtreten und neuer Leitung platz machen.

Zu viele Menschen lamentieren darüber, was sie hätten tun können, als sie die Möglichkeit dazu hatten.

Unsere Zeit ist begrenzt.

Also müssen wir wie Mose tun was wir können, wenn wir es können. Hoffentlich werden wir dann auch bemerken, wann es Zeit ist, die Herrschaft abzugeben.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

Was God Unfair? Quick Comment: Parashat Hukat (Numbers 19-22:1)

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites complain because they have no water. God tells Moses to address a certain rock, and water will come forth. But Moses loses his temper and bangs his staff three times against the rock, and water comes gushing forth. (Numbers 20: 10-11)

God is furious! Moses has made it appear that he, not God, had caused the rock to yield water.

But God’s sentence seems unduly harsh.

“Because you did not show enough faith in me to affirm my holiness in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you shall not lead the community into the land I am giving them” (Numbers 20:12).

How could God be so cruel? Even if we agree that, the offense was serious, the punishment seems too severe.

Ultimately, ranting against God’s excess misses the point.

Moses’ time had passed. He was too old to lead the military campaign necessary for the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land.

Such a campaign required a young, vigorous leader whose voice the people would obey without hesitation. Joshua was that man, and if Moses were still around when Joshua said, “Charge!” some would look to Moses to see if “Charge!” was what he really wanted them to do.

What does the story teach us?

Each of us has limited opportunities to lead and to influence. When our time is up, we like Moses, must step aside for new leadership.

Too many people lament what they should have done when they had the chance. Time is finite, and so like Moses, we must do what we can, when we can. Hopefully, we will recognize when it is time to relinquish the reigns.

For My German Readers: Ein Leckerbissen für Antisemiten und eine Warnung an uns! Kurzkommentar zu Korach (Numeri 16-18)

Der Abschnitt Korach ist ein “Leckerbissen für Antisemiten”. Sie zitieren ihn als Beleg, dass der Gott der Tora und der Hebräische Bibel eine rachsüchtige, wütende Gottheit ist, die die Erde öffnet um die zu verschlingen, die Moses Autorität in Frage stellen.

War Gott wirklich so böse?

Obwohl es so scheint, als würde der Tora-Abschnitt es so erzählen, handelt diese Geschichte überhaupt nicht von Mose. Es geht um die Autorität von Aaron und der erblichen Priester-Klasse, die die Kontrolle über die alte jüdische Gesellschaft übernommen hatten. Sie wollten Widerspruch zum schweigen bringen.

Als die Tora ihre heutige Form erhielt (in der Mitte des 5. vorchristlichen Jh.) ist Mose eine verehrte historische Person, wie wir sie nie wieder sehen werden. Aber er ist eben Geschichte.

 Die Aaroniten (die erblichen Nachkommen Aarons) waren zu der Zeit an der Macht, und die Geschichte von Korach und seinen Leuten war die beste Möglichkeit, ihrer Autorität die göttliche Imprimatur zu verleihen. Es ist eine Botschaft an jeden, der es wagte die Autorität der Priester in Frage zu stellen, dass der EwigEine die Erde öffnen und sie verschlingen würde.

Aber was steckt da für uns drin? Wie spricht dieser Tora-Abschnitt heute zu uns?

Die Korach-Geschichte ist eine wunderbare Warnung vor Anmaßung. Sie erinnert uns daran, dass wir uns, bevor wir gegen Autorität protestieren, fragen ob wir eine legitime Beschwerde haben, oder ob wir, nachdem sie all die Arbeit gemacht haben – bloß Ehre und Aufmerksamkeit auf uns ziehen wollen.

Der Gott, dem ich diene, begrüßt aufrichtigen Widerspruch und Meinungsverschiedenheit, wenn wir versuchen die Welt zu einem besseren Ort zu machen.

Es ist unglücklich, dass die Priester in alter Zeit denen, die das Judentum verachten, eine Rechtfertigung geliefert haben, das wahre Wesen des EwigEinen anzufeinden.

Translation: With thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

An Anti-Semite’s Delight and A Warning to Us! Quick Comment: Korach (Numbers 16-18)

 Parashat Korach is an “Anti-Semite’s Delight. ”  They cite it as proof that the God of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible is a vengeful, angry Deity who opens the earth to swallow those who challenge the authority of Moses.

Was God really so angry?

Although it seems that the Torah portion says so, this story is really not about Moses. It is about the authority of Aaron and the hereditary priestly class who had taken control of life in ancient Hebrew society. It is they who wished to silence dissent.

By the time the Torah comes to us in its present form (in the middle of the fifth pre-Christian century) Moses is a revered historical figure, whose like we shall never see again. But he is just that, history.

The Aaronides (hereditary descendants of Aaron) were in charge then and what better way to put the divine imprimatur on their authority than the story of Korach and his followers. The Eternal One opens the earth to swallow them up as a message to any who would challenge priestly rule.

But what’s in it for us? How does this Torah portion speak to our lives today?

The story of Korach is a wonderful warning against self-aggrandizement. It reminds us to ask before we protest against those in authority. Do we really have a legitimate grievance or—after they have done all the work—do we just want to bring glory and attention to ourselves?

The God that I worship welcomes honest dissent and disagreement as we seek to make the world a better place!

It is unfortunate that the ancient priests have given those with disdain for Judaism biblical warrant to assail the true nature of The Eternal One.

What Happens After I Die?

slfuchs:

To the legacy of David Benamy, in whose loving memory I have the honor of speaking this Shabbat

Originally posted on Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives:

Of the 150 chapters that comprise our people’s first and greatest prayer book, the biblical book of Psalms, only one of those chapters is attributed to the greatest Jew of all—Moses. That is Psalm 90, which contains humanity’s fervent appeal to God: “Establish for us the work of our hands!”

Moses’s appeal is not just for temporal prosperity, as some might interpret it. It is much grander than that. He is saying, “Let me know that my life has meaning beyond the days I have spent on earth. Let me be sure, O God, that the years of my earthly journey were not in vain. Let me know that in some way I live on.”

We express that same hope every time we visit a cemetery and every time we place a monument marker at the grave of a loved one.

One of the questions people ask me most frequently…

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For My German Readers: Moses Sternstunde

Kurzkommentar; Schelach Lecha (Nummeri 13 – 15)

Gott weist Mose an zwölf Kundschafter los zu schicken, um das Verheißene Land auszukundschaften (Nummeri 13ff).

Die Kundschafter berichten Mose kurz gesagt: Es gibt eine gute und eine schlechte Nachricht. Die gute Nachricht ist, dass das Land wundervoll ist. Es “fließt über von Milch und Honig” (Numeri 13,27). Um das zu belegen, bringen die Kundschafter eine Weintraube mit, so groß, dass zwei Männer gebraucht werden, um den Stock zu tragen, an den sie angehängt war (Numeri 13,27). Bis heute tragen zwei Männer eine Weintraube im offiziellen Wappen des Israelischen Ministeriums für Tourismus.

Die schlechte Nachricht ist, das das Land uneinnehmbar ist. Die Menschen sind gigantisch und wir werden ihnen wie Grashüpfer vorkommen.

Die Menschen klagen bitterlich, dass sie in der Wüste sterben werden.

So wie damals, als die Israeliten das Goldene Kalb gemacht hatten, ist Gott so verärgert über das fehlende Vertrauen, dass er sie vernichten will. Aber erneut steht Mose zwischen dem Volk und Gottes Ärger. Die Momente, in denen er Gottes Wut widersteht, sind Moses beste Stunden. Obwohl Gott ihm verspricht Mose mit einem neuen, besseren Volk zu ehren, will Mose es nicht haben. Mose besteht darauf: “Das ist dein Volk, das du aus Ägypten befreit hast. Du kannst sie nicht zerstören.”

Moses und Gott sind Partner.

Sie stärken sich gegenseitig.

Ich hoffe, das gilt auch für uns. Wenn das Leben am schwierigsten ist, hören wir hoffentlich eine Stimme in uns – ich nenne sie Gott – die uns drängt, weiter zu machen. Es ist ein Stimme, die uns beschwört an uns selbst zu glauben und, dass unser Leben einen Sinn hat.

Ich glauben, dass unsere Beziehung zu Gott, so wie in unserem Ewigen Bund, gegenseitig ist. Durch unsere gottähnlichen Taten des Mitgefühls und des Teilens inspirieren wir Gott zu Mitgefühl, ganz so wie Mose es tat.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

Moses’ Finest Hour

Torah Commentary: Shelach Lecha

In the second year of their journey from Egypt, God instructs Moses to send twelve scouts, one from each of the twelve Israelite tribes, to spy on the Promised Land (Numbers 13 ff). Moses requests that the spies bring back a detailed report of the land they plan to invade and conquer.

The spies return and tell Moses, essentially, there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that the land is wonderful. It is rich and fertile; it “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). To prove their point, the spies return with a cluster of grapes so rich and lush that it took two men to bear the pole to which the grapes were attached (Numbers 13:23). To this day, two men carrying a huge cluster of grapes is the official seal of Israel’s Ministry of tourism.

The bad news, according to ten of the twelve scouts, is that the land is unconquerable. The people are “giants” and we will seem to them “like grasshoppers” (Numbers 14:33).

Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, disagree contending that God has promised us this land, and we need to have the faith and courage to do our part and carry out God’s plan.

Nevertheless, the naysayers rail against Moses for ‘rescuing’ them from Egypt only to die out in the wilderness. “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt. Let us head back to Egypt (Numbers 14:3-4).”

As when the Israelites made the golden calf, God is angry enough at the people’s lack of faith to destroy them.

But once again, Moses stands between the people and God’s anger.

Using the same argument as with the golden calf, Moses, says: “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land…If then You slay this people to a man the nations who have heard Your fame will say, It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:13-16).

Moses’ appeal to God’s concern for the divine reputation is an example of biblical humor that misleads some into labeling God as a vain and self-absorbed deity. Au contraire. God could not care less what either the Egyptians or other nations think. The intent is to demonstrate the sacred partnership between God and Moses.

Those times when he restrains God’s wrath are Moses’ finest hours.

Even though God promises to glorify Moses with a new and improved nation, Moses will not have it. This is Your people, Moses insists, whom You freed from the land of Egypt. You cannot destroy them.

The crucial message of this incident⎯as with the golden calf–is that Moses and God are partners. When God seemed ready to give up on the people, Moses offered encouragement, perspective and hope. When Moses runs out of faith, God strengthens him.

I hope that it is that way with us. When life is most difficult, I hope we hear a voice within⎯I call it God⎯that urges us to continue. It is a voice imploring us to believe in ourselves and to believe that our lives have purpose.

Like our Eternal Covenant I believe the relationship is reciprocal. Through our god-like acts of compassion and sharing, we inspire God’s compassion just as Moses had done.

For My German Readers: Mach nicht zu viel!

Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt B’ha-ah-lo-techa (Numeri 8-12)

Diesmal ist es keine Überraschung, dass die Kinder Israels sich beschweren. Jetzt ist es die Wüstenküche, die nicht nach ihrem Geschmack ist. Sie verlangen, dass Mose ihnen Fleisch gibt.

Moses gerät aus der Fassung. Es wird ihm zu viel und in seinem Schmerz schreit er zu Gott: “Soll ich dieses Volk an meiner Brust tragen wie ein stillender Vater (Wie ich dieses Bild liebe!) Säuglinge trägt?” (Numeri 11:12)

Obwohl der Ewig Eine ebenfalls sehr böse ist über das Volk, sagt Gott Mose, er solle sich entspannen, weil er zu viel auf sich nimmt.

Dann instruiert Gott Mose er solle 70 Älteste bestimmen, die ihn unterstützen, damit er nicht in der Wüste ein Burnout erleidet. (Numeri 11,16)

Interessanter Weise lesen wir vor diesem Vorfall von einem Gespräch, in dem Mose seinen Schwiegervater (Jethro in Exodus, nun Reuel genannt. Offensichtlich haben wir es also mit zwei verschiedenen literarischen Quellen zu tun.) bittet bei dem Volk zu bleiben, um ihnen – als ihr Auge – mit seiner Ortskenntnis zu helfen. Reuel sagt nein. Er muss zu seinem eigenen Volk in sein eigenes Land zurückkehren (Numeri 10:29-32). In Exodus war es Jethro, der Mose den gleichen Rat gab, den Gott ihm im aktuellen Wochenabschnitt gibt (Exodus 18,14-26).

Egal welche Quelle, der Rat ist wichtig.

Der Talmud macht es kurz und bündig: “Wenn du zu viel machst, machst du am Ende gar nichts.” (B. Sukkah 5b) Oft, wenn wir an Predige gewinnen, besteht die Gefahr der Selbstüberschätzung.

Und schon muss Gott Mose, die größte und wichtigste Person der Tora (Deuteronomium 34,10), erinnern, dass er nicht zu viel auf sich nehmen soll. Wenn das so ist, sollten wir diese Botschaft nicht auch für uns selbst beherzigen?

Und schon muss Gott Mose, die größte und wichtigste Person der Tora (Deuteronomium 34,10), erinnern, dass er nicht zu viel auf sich nehmen soll. Wenn das so ist, sollten wir diese Botschaft nicht auch für uns selbst beherzigen?

Translation: Pastor Ursula Sieg

Do Not Try to Do Too Much! Quick comment: Parashat B’ha-ah-lo-techa (Numbers 8-12)

By now it is no surprise that the children of Israel are complaining. This time the desert cuisine of manna is not to their liking, and they demand that Moses give them meat.

Moses loses it! He is overwhelmed, and in his anguish he cries out to God, “Shall I carry these people in my bosom as a nursing father (how I love that image!) carries a suckling child?“ (Numbers 11:12

But even though the Eternal One is also very angry with the people, God tells Moses to relax because he is taking too much on himself.

Then God instructs Moses to appoint seventy elders to assist him so that he will not suffer burnout in the desert. (Numbers 11:16)

Interestingly, before this incident we read a conversation in which Moses asks his father-in-law (Jethro in Exodus now called Reuel, so we are obviously dealing with two different literary traditions) to remain with the people to act as their eyes in the desert. Reuel says no. He must go back to his own people in his own land (Numbers 10:29-32). In Exodus it was Jethro who gave Moses the same counsel that God gives him in this week’s portion. (Exodus 18:14-26)

Whatever the source, the advice is crucial.

 The Talmud puts it succinctly: “If you try to do too much, you end up doing nothing.” (B. Sukkah 5b)

Often, as we grow in stature we allow our sense of self-importance to grow beyond legitimate bounds.

 And yet God had to remind Moses, of whom the Torah teaches we shall never see his like for greatness again (Deuteronomy 34:10), that he should not take too much on himself! If so, should we not heed the message ourselves?