Das Wichtigste zuerst! Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Ki Tetze, Deuteronomium 21, 10 – 25,19

“Du sollst dich, wenn du siehst, dass deines Nachbarn Ochse oder Schaf sich verlaufen hat, nicht abwenden. Ganz gewiss musst du es zu ihm zurück bringen.”

Ein früherer Abschnitt (Exodus 23, 4-5) erinnert uns daran, dass diese Pflicht sogar besteht, wenn der Besitzer des verloren gegangenen Tieres unser Feind ist.

Die Tora ist unnachgiebig, wenn es darum geht, wie wir unsere Mitmenschen behandeln sollen, auch die, die wir nicht mögen.

Eine Anekdote, die vom berühmten Gelehrten des 19. Jh. und Gründer der Musar – Bewegung. Yisroel Salanter erzählt wird, illustriert diese Idee: Es war der Abend des Yom Kippur, dem heiligsten Tag des Jahres. Die Synagoge war rappelvoll mit Gottesdienstbesuchern, die auf den Rabbi warteten, um die das Kol Nidre zu beten. Aber der Rabbi war nirgends zu finden. Das Fehlen des Rabbiners erschreckte die Gemeindeältesten, denn er kam immer sehr rechtzeitig vor Beginn des Gottesdienstes zur Synagoge.

Ein eilig organisierter Suchtrupp suchte alles ab und fand den Rabbi schließlich. Er lenkte ein störrisches Kalb zurück in den Stall seines nicht-jüdischen Nachbarn.

“Rabbi, wo bist du gewesen,” forderten die Gemeindeleiter eine Erklärung?“Weißt du denn nicht, dass alle auf dich in der Synagoge warten, um das Kol Nidre zu beten?”

“Ja”, sagte Rabbi Yisroel, “es tut mir leid. Aber ich konnte einfach meinen heiligen Pflichten des Versöhnungstages nicht nachkommen, solange dieses arme, hilflose Tier in sein Verderben läuft.”

Somit erlaubt der die jüdischen Gesetze streng befolgende Rabbi Salanter keiner jüdischen Vorschrift, der Pflicht, einem Menschen zu helfen, zuvor zu kommen.

Was für ein wunderbares Beispiel für uns alle!

Erläuterungen:

Musar – Der Begriff musar stammt aus den Proverbien (Sprüche Salomos) 1,2 und bedeutet: Disziplin. Die Beschäftigung damit wird gegenwärtig wieder populär.

Kol Nidre – “Alle Schwüre”: ein Gebet, das nur einmal im Jahr zu Beginn der Gottesdienste zu Jom Kippur gesprochen wird.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor UrsulaSieg

First Things First Quick Comment: Parashat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10 -25:19)

“You shall not watch your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray and hide yourself from them. You must certainly bring them back to him.” (Deuteronomy 22:1)

An earlier passage (Exodus 23: 4-5) reminds us that this obligation applies even if the owner of the lost animal is our enemy.

The Torah is adamant in telling us how we must treat our fellow humans, even those we do not like.

An anecdote told about the famed 19th century scholar and founder of the Musar* movement, Yisroel Salanter, illustrates this idea:

It was the Eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. They synagogue was packed full of worshippers waiting for Rabbi Salanter to chant the Kol Nidre*. But the rabbi was nowhere to be found.

The rabbi’s absence shocked the community elders because he always arrived at the synagogue well in advance of the time to begin worship.

A hastily organized search party looked everywhere and finally found the rabbi, leading the stubborn calf of a gentile neighbor back into its stall.

“Rabbi,” the leaders demanded, “Where have you been? Don’t you know everyone is waiting for you in the synagogue to chant the Kol Nidre?

“Yes,” Rabbi Yisroel answered. “I am sorry, but I simply could not attend even to the sacred duties of the Day of Atonement while this poor, helpless animal wandered about lost.”

Though a strict observer of Jewish law Rabbi Salanter allowed no religious principles to come before the obligation to help other human beings.

What a wonderful example for all of us today!

*Notes:

Musar: The term musar is found in Proverbs 1:2. It means “discipline,” and its study is gaining new popularity today.

Kol Nidre: “All Vows.” Prayer recited only once during the year to begin worship on Yom Kippur.

If It’s Elul, It Must be Agnon

As the sacred month of Elul, the month before the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah arrived, I once again picked up and began to re-read my copy of S. Y. Agnon’s  Days of Awe. Each year my appreciation of and reverence for the book grows. Each year it reminds me of the special role my (father’s first, my second) cousin Judith played in my life. Before I met her people described her as, “An angel.” I feel very blessed to know personally that indeed she was!

One of my constant High Holy Day companions over the years has been a wonderful book, Days of Awe, by Israel’s Nobel Prize-winning author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon. In my last web essay, I listed it among the ten books that have influenced me most in my life.

As much as the book means to me, the person who gave it to me means even more. It was a gift from my father’s first cousin Dr. Judith Kaplan, whom I met when I came to Israel for the first time as a rabbinical student in July 1970.

Another of my father’s cousins was to meet me at the airport, but there was a mix-up, and she was not there. I shall never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach as the crowded reception hall at Lod airport slowly emptied out leaving me just about the only one there. This was, of course, way before computers and cell phones revolutionized the way we communicate.

All I could think of was that my father had told me, “Judith is an angel.” Well, we would soon find out how this angel would react to a cousin she had never seen waking her up at three o’clock in the morning. I found the number and figured out how to use the strange Israeli public phones. My heart pounded as the phone rang.

“Judith,” I began when she picked up the phone. “My name is Stephen. I am Leo’s son from America. I am here to study in Israel. His cousin Hedwig was supposed to be at the airport, but no one was here.”

Judith said, “Come immediately.”

Those were the most comforting words I could imagine. I got into a taxi, gave the driver the address in Tel Aviv, and before long I was at her door. She and her husband Lazer greeted me with hugs, kisses and genuine joy.

Lazer owned a thriving hardware store in the heart of Tel Aviv. Judith was a successful and busy dermatologist. They lived in what was, by U.S. standards, a modest apartment. Yet, they seemed very content.

Though Judith was a busy professional, she was also a Jewish mother, and her first reaction after greeting me was, “You must be hungry; you have to eat.” She went and fixed me a cheese sandwich. I had never eaten cheese before. But I did not have the heart to tell Judith that what she had made at four o’clock in the morning something I did not eat, so I did eat it. And it was delicious.

Judith was eager to know about the family. She was excited that I was going to be a rabbi, but she herself was a secular Jew. Yet, I knew from what I had heard about her, and I knew from what I saw that she lived her life infused with the Jewish values of caring and compassion. And, she lived in the Jewish homeland.

The next day, Judith and Lazer sent me on my way to Jerusalem. I visited often, and I loved her very much.

A few months later, my father died, and I, heartbroken, went home for the funeral. I stayed home a month to be with my family. When I returned to Israel, Judith’s house was once again my first stop.

She was there with love and comfort.

She had been very close to my father when they were children in Germany, and she told me wonderful stories about him.

I still remember walking with her along the beach in Tel Aviv. She had taken a day out of her busy schedule to be with me.

The months passed, and when it was time for me to return to my studies in the United States, Judith gave me a present I shall always treasure. It is the book I mentioned earlier, Days of Awe, by S.Y. Agnon.

I have read the book many times. I try to read it in the summer as part of my preparations for the High Holy Days. I am reading it again now as Rosh Hashanah approaches. This year, Vickie and I will once again spend the Days of Awe  and two months thereafter in Germany. The Germany that Judith wisely fled in 1935 is the Germany, the Germany which Vickie’s parents and my father were lucky to escape is the Germany to which we shall return with hope and optimism nearly 80 years later. Days of Awe is the only hard copy book I will carry with me.

Oh, it was a soft copy when Judith gave it to me,with a cover price of $2.95 back in 1971, but it fell apart from continual re-readings. The $65 I paid to have it custom rebound with my name embossed on the cover is the most meaningful present I have ever given myself.

The introduction by Yale professor, Judah Goldin, refers to the book as a classic, and he defines a classic this way: “A work becomes a classic the minute I discover that my many moods, my perceptions … are startlingly anticipated … in that work.” By that definition, Days of Awe is certainly a classic, and so was my cousin Judith.

I shall never forget her insight or her caring.

Her life was a shining example of service. Although she was well into her seventies, she rose early in the morning to go to the clinic where she worked. She came home in the afternoon to care for her ailing husband. Then she saw private patients in her office at home.

She was ever grateful that she left Germany in 1935, and that she was able to live happily with her husband, raise her daughter Devorah, who is also a physician, and bring healing and hope to many in the Promised Land.

Judith has been gone for several years now, but I think of her every time I pick up Days of Awe. I think of her love and dedication, I think of how she was there for me not once but twice when I needed her most, I think of her smile, and I try to be worthy of her example.

When I was last in Israel, I had a wonderful visit with Devorah, who is now a grandmother herself. When I shared with her my memories of her mother, tears came to her eyes, and in a very real way, Judith was there with us as we talked.

I pray that during my stay in Germany, I will feel Judith’s presence once again and that my efforts here will be worthy of her blessing

Let’s Put the “Eye for an Eye” Verses to Bed Once and for All! Quick Comment, Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9)

No matter how many times I explain, the question still comes up. Sometimes people ask respectfully and sometimes scornfully to “prove” that the “Old Testament” is a book of harsh vengeance.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Deuteronomy 19:21; also Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20) is not instruction that we should understand literally. In all Hebrew Scripture (thirty-nine books), you will not find a single case where punishment involved amputation or mutilation. No! An “eye for eye” is a vital commentary on the Torah portion’s flagship statement. “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20).”

That statement truly capsulizes the ideal of Hebrew Scripture and later Jewish thought. It is in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38): “Do not resist an evildoer.“

A completely just society will always elude us, but we must always strive toward that goal. As Rabbi Tarfon put it in the second century CE, “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).”

Understood as part of the ongoing quest for justice, the “eye for an eye” passages mean the punishment should fit the crime. The Talmud (B. Baba Kama 83b-84a) clearly states that when the action of another cost a person limb or an eye, judges must levy financial compensation commensurate with the loss.

Punishment should neither be too lenient nor excessive. “An eye for an eye” reminds us to constantly pursue Tzedek (true justice) the elusive balance of punishment and compassion as we seek to create a world that lives up to God’s hopes!

Elul: A Special Month in the Hebrew Calendar

One of my most precious possessions is a copy of the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin printed in Munich in 1946 on presses once used for Nazi propaganda. A Talmud printed on an erstwhile Nazi printing press is a powerful symbol of our privilege to use our time, our talent and our material resources to help replant vibrant, progressive Jewish learning and living in the places where the Nazis tried to destroy them.

In this volume (page 40B) we find one of the most uplifting of rabbinic teachings whose message is particularly appropriate during the last month of the year, the month of Elul: Each of us should see ourselves as half innocent and half guilty, as though our good deeds and our bad deeds completely balance one another. If we then commit one good deed, we tip the scales in our favor!

What a marvelous metaphor! How wonderful a place would our world become if each of us went through life committed to making our next deed a good one.

My late and beloved Ulpan teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, used to say, “It is not just a gift for Jews that we created a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the forty-day period (starting at the beginning of the month of Elul) leading up to it. It is a gift for all humanity.

Assigning a numerical value to each Hebrew letter our Sages deduced that the word, Elul (Aleph, one. Lamed, thirty, Vov, 6 and Lamed, again, thirty) has the same numerical value, sixty-seven as the Hebrew word binah (Bet, two, Yod, ten, Nun, fifty and Hay, five) which means, “understanding.” Elul, then, becomes a special month to seek self-understanding.

We each have talents and abilities, and our goal—particularly during this special month–is to ask ourselves, “What particular talents and abilities do I posses? How can I use them to benefit others?

In the middle of the month of Elul my wife Vickie and I will travel to Germany as we did last year. There we will spend the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and two months thereafter speaking and teaching in synagogues, churches and German schools. I will also offer two seminars at our seminary, the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.

We go with the hope that we may spread knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Jewish ideals and thought in a place that once tried to extirpate the practices, the wisdom and, indeed, the very gene pool of our people.

 Like my prized Talmud tractate I was born in 1946. I hope our presence in Germany will represent the message that the Munich Talmud conveys. In a place which once was ravaged by hatred and destruction, may we testify to the vitality and relevance of Jewish life and thought.

When I was younger, I dreamed of doing more grandiose things, but I was not given the talent to cure cancer or bring about peace in the world. But I can help Jews and non-Jews understand and appreciate the meaning of the Torah’s lessons and the wisdom of our Jewish heritage. By using these talents productively I hope to tip the balance scales in my favor as I enter the New Year and contribute in a small way to making the world a better place.

Guest blogger: Leo Fuchs Seeking win-win solutions

My son, Leo Fuchs, is principal of LWL (Learning without Limits) an elementary charter school that he founded in inner city Oakland, CA with the goal of going boys and girls from underprivileged backgrounds a better shot at meaningful and productive lives. I am very proud of him.

His letter below was published in the San Frnacisco Examiner in response to disparaging remarks about Israel that appeared in a recent Examiner Op-ed essay.

I am writing in response to Rachel Ebora’s July 28 Op-Ed. As the parent of Jewish children who attend the SFUSD and the grandchild of three Holocaust survivors some, of whose family members escaped from Germany to Israel, I felt relieved to read Superintendent Carranza’s remark quoted in the Examiner on July 14 that “We are not interested in … providing an environment where any group of people will feel disparaged or unwelcomed.”

I applaud the district’s effort to include instruction in languages spoken by significant proportions

of our city’s population, including Vietnamese and Arabic. I also applaud the intention to carefully avoid putting curriculum and personnel in front of children that would disparage any ethnic group’s culture or homeland.

If what has been reported in the press is true, that AROC leaders have made comments disparaging Israel, and AROC’s Executive Director is unapologetic and lacking understanding of the pain of these words, then surely this is not a group that should be working with the SFUSD’s children.

As this conversation moves forward, I hope that we in the Bay Area can model for our children difficult conversations the way we hope our children will hold them as they grow up and take on the world’s great challenges.

I hope we can model empathetic listening and the seeking of win-win solutions in problems small and large.

Leo Fuchs

For my German readers: Der große Widerspruch   Kurzkommentar zu: Re’eh (Deuteronomium 11, 28 – 16,17)

In Deuteronomium 15,4 findet sich eines der definitivsten Worte der Bibel: אפס efes – null, keines, bubkas, nada, nicht ein einziges! “Es wird efes Bedürftigen unter euch geben!”

Aber nur einige Sätze später (Deuteronomium 15,11) lesen wir: “Es wird immer Arme im Land geben.”

Wie kann die Tora eine Sache sagen und wenige Sätze später das genaue Gegenteil?

Die Lösung dieses großen Wiederspruches liegt darin, dass unser Bund mit Gott an Bedingungen geknüpft ist.

Der Bund mit Gott stellte immer Bedingungen.

Als unser Volk entstand versprach Gott Abraham und uns Schutz, Kinder, Dauerhaftigkeit als Volk und das Land Israel unter der Bedingung, dass wir ein Segen für andere sind (Genesis 12,2), Gottes Weisungen folgen (Genesis 17,1) und es praktizieren und unsere Kinder lehren, die Welt zu füllen mit “tzedakah umishpat, mit Rechtschaffenheit und Recht.

Das sind immer noch die Bedingungen!

“Es wird keine Bedürftigen unter euch geben”, wenn und nur wenn alle im Volk ver- und fürsorgend sind, sensibel für die Bedürfnisse anderer und freigiebig. Aber da das so leicht nicht verwirklicht sein wird, müssen wir, die wir die Verpflichtungen unseres Bundes ernst nehmen, aufmerksam sein und bereit unserer Herz und Hände zu öffnen für die Armen und Bedürftigen.

Es geht zurück zu der überaus wichtigen Frage, die Kain Gott stellt: Soll ich meines Bruders Hüter sein? (Genesis 4,9)

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

Gott antwortet uns das gleiche, was er Kain antwortete: Deines Bruders Blut schreit zu mir… (Genesis 4, 10-11)

Hoffentlich hören und beantworten wir heute diese Klageschreie: Solange wir nicht unserer Brüder und Schwestern Bewahrer werden, wird die gerechte und mitfühlende Gesellschaft, die Gott uns auffordert zu schaffen, nie mehr sein als eine sehnsüchtige Hoffnung.

The Greatest Person in the History of Sports

The link above allows you to hear the person I consider the greatest person in the history of professional sports. It is Jack Twyman giving the 2004 Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech for his teammate, the late Maurice Stokes.

As a player Jack Twyman  is deservedly in the Hall of Fame himself. He led the National Basketball Association is scoring and was among its all time leaders in field goal percentage. But in that elite company he was not the greatest player of all!

But he was the greatest human being

In 1958, Twyman’s Cincinnati Royal’s teammate Maurice Stokes, a budding superstar (the great Bob Cousy described him as Karl Malone with finesse), suffered a severe injury after a fall during a game. His injuries were more than career-ending. Maurice Stokes remained a quadriplegic for twelve years needing round the clock care until his death in 1970.

Mr. Twyman became Mr. Stokes’ legal guardian and assumed responsibility for all of his expenses. Mr. Twyman organized an annual Maurice Stokes benefit game played during the summer at Kutsher’s, a noted Catskill Mountain resort at the time. The game was a must on the schedule of every NBA star of the day. They came at their own expense to participate.

Jack Twyman was white, and Maurice Stokes was black. That might not seem like such a big deal today, but in the 1950’s before the Civil Rights Movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King altered prevailing American attitudes about race, it was huge.

Jack Twyman was a man of great humility. He often said that Maurice Stokes’ courage and determination did more for him than he did for Mr. Stokes.

When I studied in Cincinnati at Hebrew Union College in the summer of 1968, I visited Mr. Stokes several times. He was a patient at Good Samaritan hospital, which is right next door to HUC. There I had the privilege of meeting Mr Twyman and telling him that he was my hero.

Jewish tradition has always affirmed a belief in afterlife although we are very non-specific about the details.

I personally believe—at the very least I fervently hope— that goodness is rewarded and true evildoers receive punishment. Yes, that IS what I believe and HOPE.

At the same time I KNOW that we all live on-–for better or worse–-in the way our deeds affect those who live after us.

Our tradition strongly affirms that, “the righteous among the gentiles receive the same reward in the world beyond this one as the righteous Jew (B. Sanhedrin 105A).

Based on these ideas, Mr. Twyman a devout Roman Catholic, who died in 2012, stands on the highest rung of reward that heaven offers. By his side I see a whole and healthy Maurice Stokes with that huge smile on his face that was his trademark both before and AFTER his devastating injury. Perhaps the two engage n a vigorous game of one on one.

Yes, that is what I hope! But I know that the selfless example of Jack Twyman continues to influence and inspire me. I hope you will watch his speech and that he will inspire you as well.

The Great Contradiction Quick Comment: Torah Portion Re’eh  (Deuteronomy 11:28 -16:17)

 In Deuteronomy 15:4 we read one of the most categorical words in the Bible: אפס efes as in zero, none, bubkas, nada, not a single one. “There shall be efes needy among you …”

But just a few sentences later (Deuteronomy 15:11) we read, “The poor shall never cease to be in the land.”

How can the Torah say one thing and seven sentences later say the complete opposite?

The resolution to this “Great Contradiction” lies in the conditional nature of our Covenant with God.

The Covenant has always been conditional.

 When our people began, God promised Abraham and us protection, children, permanence as a people and the and of Israel on condition that we be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2), follow God’s teachings (Genesis 17:1), and practice and teach our children to fill the world with, “tzedakah u’mishpat, righteousness and justice.”

Those are still the terms!

 “There will be no poor or needy” if and only if all people are giving, caring, sensitive to the needs of others and generous. But since that is not likely to happen, we who take our covenantal obligation seriously must be aware of and ready to open our hearts and our hands to the poor and needy.

It goes back to the essential question Cain Asked God:

Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

God’s answer to us is the same as to Cain: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me…” (Genesis 4:10 -11)

Hopefully we hear and respond to those plaintive cries today: Until we become our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, the just caring and compassionate society that God called us to create will never to be more than a wistful hope.

Will Gott, dass wir die Völker vernichten? Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Ekev (Deuteronomium 7, 12 – 11, 25)

Mein Verständnis der Tora befiehlt mir, mich von jeder Art Fanatismus zu distanzieren.

Wie alle anständigen Menschen entsetzt mich, wenn Fanatiker sechs unschuldige Menschen bei einer Gay Pride Parade

niederstechen – von denen eine Person inzwischen gestorben ist – oder Brandanschläge auf ein Wohnhaus im palästinischen Dorf Duma verüben und ein unschuldiges Kind töten.

Deshalb müssen wir (nicht können, wir MÜSSEN) Abschnitte der Tora neu interpretieren, wo Gott unsere Ahnen anweist: “Eure Augen sollen kein Mitleid mit ihnen haben!” (Deuteronomium 7,16)

Solch ein Satz ist beschämend. Sie liefern Anti-Semiten Munition, die behaupten, der Gott der Hebräischen Bibel ist ein Gott der Rache und Gewalt.

Wie kommt denn solch ein Satz in die Bibel?

Er lehrt uns, dass wir gegenüber den sozialen und religiösen Praktiken der damaligen heidnischen Welt, zu denen orgastische Riten und schreckliche Menschenopfer gehörten, keine Toleranz haben dürfen.

Und das war nicht einfach durchzusetzen!

Der Tora-Abschnitt erinnert uns, dass, als Mose etwas zu lange auf dem Berg Sinai blieb, die Israeliten von Aaron ein Goldenes Kalb zum Anbeten forderten (Deuteronomium 9,9ff).

Mit Sätze wie diesem versucht die Bibel uns beizubringen, dass wir einen Bund mit Gott haben. Gott fordert von uns, Gerechtigkeit fair auszuüben, Armen, Witwen und Waisen besondere Aufmerksamkeit zu schenken, und Fremden mit Respekt zu begegnen.

Nur, indem wir das tun, verherrlichen wir Gott.

Nur so werden wir das “Licht der Völker” (Jesaja 49,6), das Vorbild für die ganze Welt, das wir nach Gottes Willen sein sollen.

Nein, Gott will nicht, dass irgendjemand ausgelöscht wird, sondern fordert energisch, dass wir uns von dem Verhalten distanzieren, das die Bibel ihnen zuschreibt.

Translation: with thanks to Pastorin Ursula Sieg