Judith

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, though, I am reading it in Germany. The Germany that Judith wisely fled in 1935 is the Germany to which I have returned with hope and optimism nearly 80 years later. Days of Awe is the only hard copy book I carried 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

 

 

 

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My Ten Most Influential Books

Michael Amram Rinast has invited me to list the ten books that have influenced me the most. I will gladly name ten books that have had great impact on my life, but I can’t swear there are not others that have had equal significance to me. These are the ten that come to mind now:

1. What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives — Forgive me if this seems egotistical, but this book has been percolating in my mind and heart for forty years.

2. The Book of Genesis–The first book of the Torah–more than any others has influenced  the way I think and try to act. Other biblical books could easily make this list, but one biblical bookstands out for me, and I want to make note of that.

3.The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon–Within the next few days I will post another essay that will make clear why this book means so much to me.

4. The Rabbi by Noah Gordon–It is no exaggeration for me to say that reading this book for the first of many times when I was 18, shaped the direction of my life. It was an honor to mer Mr. Gordon in 2001and share this with him in person

5. Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss–To me this is by far the greatest of many great Dr. Seuss books. It is a marvelous lesson in loyalty and honor that first touched my heart when my teacher, Mrs. Naomi Asher, read it to us in second grade. It still touches my heart today.

6. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth–The gritty story of Davy Pearl’s coming of age inspires me for its lack of sentimentality and the amazing insight it offers into childhood emotions. As an adult I continue to resonate to those emotions.

7. The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel–This ground breaking expose of the plight of Soviet Jews in the sixties alerted the world to the issue which galvanized the Jewish world for nearly two decades

8. Night by Elie Wiesel–It is hard to imagine that the Holocaust would hold nearly the place it does in the minds of people of all backgrounds today were it not for Wiesel’s haunting memoir.

9. Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon–Unsurpassed for it realism and sensitivity to the issues of people with disabilities

10. (TIE) Basic Judaism and As A Driven Leaf both by Milton Steinberg. Basic Judaism opened my eyes as a high school student to the necessity of distilling the essence f Judaism in such a way that encourages people to build on their learning. As A Driven Leaf, which weaves a magnificent historical novel from a few small fragments of Talmudic and Midrashic evidence, opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities inherent in creative Biblical interpretation.

I hope you like my choices and invite interested readers to share yours.

 

 

 

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The Afterlife as I See It

What follows is my fourth and final essay that appears in the recently published (CCAR Press) symposium edited by Rabbi Paul J. Citrin, entitled, Lights in the Forest.

 

In recent decades we Jews – Reform Jews in particular — have submerged mention of the afterlife to the degree that many Jews frame the question to me as an assumption: “We don’t believe in life after death. Do we, rabbi?”

I would respond, “Yes, we do!”

For Jews attaining the reward in Olam ha Ba, the world to come does not depend on what we believe. It depends on how we live our lives.

My belief in life after death has two parts: What I hope and what I know.

I hope, and in my heart I believe, that good people receive in some way rewards from God in a world beyond the grave. I hope that they are reunited with loved ones and live on with them in a realm free of the pain and debilitation that might have marked the latter stages of their earthly life.

Speaking personally, my father died at age 57 and my mother, who never remarried died at age 88. She was a widow for more years than she was married. My fondest hope since her death is that they are together again enjoying the things they enjoyed on earth and as much in love with each other as the day they stood beneath the chuppah to unite their lives.

I hope, pray, and even trust that they are young, strong and vigorous not weak and frail as they both were before they died. I hope and pray also that in some indescribable way they are able to feel and share the joy of the happy events that our family has shared since they left us.

I cannot, of course, prove that any of this is true. Yet I cling tenaciously to my hope.

There is also an aspect of after life of which I am absolutely sure. Our loved ones live on in our memories, and those memories can surely inspire us to lead better lives.

At the beginning of Noah Gordon’s marvelous novel, The Rabbi the protagonist, Rabbi Michael Kind thinks of his beloved grandfather who died when he was a teenager, and recalls a Jewish legend that teaches: “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise, know they are loved, and they rejoice.”

Each time we do something worthy because of their teaching or example, they live on. If we listen we can hear them call to us as God called to Abraham in establishing the sacred Covenant of our faith:

Be a blessing! (Genesis 12:2)

Study, try to understand and follow God’s instruction! (Genesis 17:1)

Practice–and teach those you love to practice–righteousness and justice! (Genesis (18:19)

And then, when we turn their words into our actions, we know–we absolutely know–that our loved ones are immortal, and they live on in a very real and special way.

 

 

 

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13 Years Ago: How I Reacted to 9/11

What follows are thoughts I expressed on Yom Kippur in 2001.

It is hard to imagine that if 9/11/01 was a child, he or she would now be ready for Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Indeed in the years since that day, terror has come of age.

 The connection I made between the events of that day and the Middle East was valid then, and I believe it is all the more valid today. I applaud President Obama’s resolve to fight the ISIS terrorists.There are those in this world whose only mission is death and destruction. Unfortunately, that is the only language they understand.

Why does it take the worst to bring out the best in us?

That is the question I hope we shall ponder intensively throughout this sacred day.

We are just beginning to absorb the enormity and the reality of the tragedy our nation has endured. Thousands and thousand of people whose only crime was that they got up and went to work will never come home.

Through our tears and our revulsion at the evil behind this terror, we have seen awe-inspiring heroism and examples of goodness and leadership that will inspire us as long as we breathe. Let us close our eyes and think of the firefighters, the police, the Emergency Medical Technicians, the doctors, nurses, and the chaplains of all faiths who did so much to comfort so many.

Let us think of the entertainers. They came from every corner of everywhere to donate their talent and time, and they raised 150 million dollars to aid the victims.

Ordinary people, too, rolled up their sleeves to give blood, unrolled their billfolds to give money, collected food, and clothing. The resolve and reaction of the American people to this tragedy is a proud chapter in our history.

 What we suffered in the United States on 9/11 is on a larger scale what Israel has lived with for all its existence. That point becomes even clearer when we realize that just days ago, Israeli security captured two Palestinians that had planned to blow up the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv, the tallest building in the Middle East.

If the Palestinians cannot accept the reality of a sovereign Jewish Israel, then the prognosis is war and suffering and more war and more suffering. If the Palestinians cannot renounce terror, then reprisals and the deaths of innocent Palestinians will not end.

Why does it take the worst to bring out the best in us? I wish I knew. I do know, though, that this is the time for us to bring out our best –our best as Americans and our best as Jews; our best in support of the victims of terror in our country, and our best in support of our brothers and sisters in Israel.

They both need our love, our money, our time, and our presence.

Let terror not paralyze us but mobilize us. As Americans let us conquer the fear that gives terror its victory, and let us face the future with courage.

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As I Travel to Germany: Elul Thoughts (III)

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.

We each have talents and abilities, and our goal—particularly during the days of Elul–is to ask ourselves, “What particular talents and abilities do I posses? Am I using them only for my own enrichment or enjoyment? Or do I—and if not can I—find ways to use these gifts for the benefit of others.

As I head to Germany to spend time preceding and during the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and for several weeks thereafter speaking and teaching in synagogues and churches as well as the University of Potsdam School of Theology, it is with the hope that I may use my modest talents to spread knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Jewish ideals and thought in a place that once tried to extirpate the gene pool and practices of our people.

Like my prized Talmud tractate I was born in 1946. My late father, Leo Fuchs, was arrested on Kristallnacht in the city of Leipzig where he was born and grew up. I look forward with both trepidation and joyful anticipation to delivering the sermon at Leipzig’s annual Holocaust commemoration this year.

My presence there I hope will represent the message that the Munich Talmud conveys. In a place which once was ravaged by hatred and destruction, the reaffirmation of the vitality and goodness of Jewish thought are once again encouraged to flourish.

 

 

 

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“Let us make humanity in our image … “ (Genesis 1:26) What does “Us” Refer to in This Verse?

One of the frequent questions readers of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives ask me is, “If Jewish tradition insists that there is only ONE God, why does the Story of Creation in Genesis use the plural “us” when referring to God?”

 Since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is rapidly approaching, celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world; it is a good time to address this important question. Those who raise it may not realize that rabbis who lived nearly 2000 years ago also pondered that apparent contradiction between Jewish theology and the biblical text.

 Our Sages of that period were acutely aware that the early Fathers of the Christian Church saw the verse in question and the word “us” in particular as a proof text for the Divinity of Jesus. For the Church, Jesus was with God at the beginning of the world. For the rabbis, of course, and for Jews to this day, he was not.

 For the rabbis, Jesus is not God. So they sought—and sometimes stretched for—other answers to the question: with whom did God counsel when the Eternal One said, “Let us make humanity in our image?”

 Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani suggested that God consulted the previously created works of heaven and earth. From this idea, our Sages taught, we learn humility. If God would consult the mosquito before engaging in the most important creative act of all, should we too not be humble enough to learn from others whose station in life may be lower than ours? Rabbi Ammi offered the opinion that God consulted the Divine heart before creating human beings. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:3)

 Another suggestion is that God took the quality of mercy as the Divine associate when creating human beings. According to the Midrash, God wondered whether it was wise to create human beings or not. The rabbis pictured God pondering: If I create humans, wicked people will spring from them; but if I do not, how will righteous people come into the world? Ultimately God disregards the wicked offspring, takes mercy as a partner and proceeds. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5)

 The Sages postulated several other possible answers as to what “us” means in the creation story. The ministering angels (yes our Sages spoke often about angels), the souls of future righteous people, and the Torah are among the suggestions.

 To me, though, it is clear that the rabbis were trying to say: The word “us” in the Story of Creation can mean almost anything one may imagine with one exception. It does not refer to Jesus.

 In those days mutual antipathy and scorn marked the relationship between the Jewish Sages and the early Fathers of the Christian church. Today I pray that we can all understand and accept that Christians and Jews see Jesus differently. Can we learn at last not only to tolerate but also to respect and even affirm those differences?

 

 

Note: Midrash is a generic term for Jewish stories and teachings which expound upon or explain the meaning of biblical verses.

Bereshit Rabbah is a collection of midrashim (plural of Midrash) on the book of Genesis. Its origins might stem from the third century CE although most scholars believe its final editing occurred much later.

 

 

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“Christians Often Speak of, “Love,” “Grace” and “Salvation,” but What Do These Terms Mean to Jews?

My third essay, (slightly expanded) that appears in Lights in the Forest, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published September, 2014 by CCAR Press:

For me, these terms relate to what I call, “The mystery of God.” As long as I live I shall never forget the plaintive cry of a young girl a few weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I had been called to the family’s home as her father had just passed away. She sobbed in my arms, and cried out, “God damn you God!” I can still feel her tears and hear her sobs.

Things happen in our lives that are incomprehensible! I don’t believe we are meant to understand the reason for everything. I resonate to God’s ultimate response to Job who finally demanded an answer from the Almighty for his many afflictions – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4-39:30)

In contemporary words, there is much that we cannot know that we wish we did. That is an essential element of my faith. Over the years many times during Torah study and other learning sessions, people have asked, “Why did God do that?” Or “How could God have been so mean as to have done that?” My response has been, “There is a reason that we come to worship God and do not expect God to come and worship us. We answer to God. God does not answer to us.”

As human beings created in God’s image we have a very good idea of what God hopes our behavior will be. God hopes we will treat one another with graciousness and love, and we may hope that God will treat us with graciousness and love. Often it will not seem that way. We have all seen many bad things happen to very good people. Because of such events I have seen so many people lose or abandon faith in God.

Harold Kushner earned international renown by explaining that phenomena by writing that he can believe in a God as all good but not all powerful. It is a formidable argument that has brought great comfort to a great many people, but I am not sure he is correct. How God dispenses reward land love in this world is a mystery I do not believe we can solve.

No matter how sophisticated the computer programs we develop, no matter how close we humans come to winning the battle against cancer, there is still an infinite gulf between the reality of God and our knowledge of God. I think we need the humility to realize that.

In the aftermath of the children of Israel’s apostasy at Sinai when they worshipped the golden calf, Moses (Exodus 33:12ff) asks God to give the people more tangible evidence that God is with them. Moses asks God to show the people a reason to believe. God agrees to Moses request, but insists (Exodus 33:19) I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show compassion to whom I will show compassion” In other words God says, “Moses even you who have closer knowledge of me than anyone before or since will not fully comprehend the reasons for all that happens, and the rest of the people will have even less understanding. I am in essence a mystery.

We do perceive, though, that God’s love, grace and salvation are things we must try to earn. This is one of the largest real differences between classical Jewish and classical Christian thought. In Christian thinking faith in God and Jesus are indispensible and (some would say the only) if one wishes to gain grace, salvation and God’s unconditional love.

By contrast we Jews believe that we must try to earn them through the acts of kindness, caring and compassion that we do. Our belief in God or lack of belief is clearly a secondary consideration.

We also believe, though that because of God’s graciousness and love for us, we have a mission to use Torah – understood in the broad sense of the term as all of Jewish learning – to work toward the salvation of the world. It is a goal we may never fully attain, but as Rabbi Tarfon taught us nearly 2000 years ago, “we are not free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)

 

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Orthodox Jews Often Mistreat Women Because They Misinterpret Jewish Tradition

Ever since I wrote my rabbinical thesis on The Expansion of Women’s Rights during the Period of the Mishnah, I have been aware of the extraordinary lengths the rabbis went to enhance the status of women in Jewish law. The Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract provided economic security for the woman — unprecedented in human history — when the marriage ended through divorce or the husband’s death. It is hard to find a more significant advancement in women’s rights in legal history.

The Sages de facto eliminated the biblical procedure of Sotah ( the trial by ordeal for a suspected adulteress described in Number 5:11 ff) and the binding of a widow to her brother in-law by levirate marriage against her will (Deuteronomy 25:1-10).   Although only the man can divorce the woman – not the other way around – in traditional Jewish law, the rabbis instituted important procedures whereby if the man did not live up to the provisions of the Ketubah by, for example, changing jobs without her consent, or moving without her agreement from a big city to a small town or vice versa, she could take him to court and force him to divorce her and pay the face value of the contract.

The laws they promulgated and the biblical interpretations they offered make our Tannaitic Sages heroes in the advancement in women’s status. But the attempts to redress society’s inherent misogyny do not have to wait for the rabbis. The Bible itself repeatedly exalts the status of women and demonstrates her superiority to her male counterpart.

Over and over again it is the biblical woman who gets it and the man who is clueless. Eve has been maligned for generations for the so called fall of man, but really she is the heroine of the elevation of humanity. It was she not her husband who perceived that life in Eden-–while idyllic–was sterile and essentially without meaning. It was she who saw (Genesis 3:6) ונחמד העץ להשכיל the tree of knowledge was desirable as a source of wisdom; she took of its fruit and ate.

Other examples abound. Rebecca is a prime mover; Isaac is passive. Judah evolves from the man who sold his brother to the man who would not leave his other brother behind because of the tutelage of his daughter-in-law Tamar. Hannah is savvy and aware, but her husband Elkanah and Eli the high priest of Israel just don’t get it. Vashti, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Yael…the list of female heroes goes on and on.

Moses is unquestionably the Bible’s most important figure, but he only becomes our liberator, lawgiver and leader because of the intervention of no fewer than six women: Shifrah, Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah. Through their stories and commentaries the rabbis of the Midrash add luster to their roles. There are the wonderful midwives, whose actions rebut across the millennium, the cowardly Nazi war criminals who tried to excuse themselves by saying “I had no choice. I was just following orders.” Shifrah and Puah received orders too, from their boss, their king, the most powerful man in the world who was worshipped as a god. “When you help the Hebrew women give birth and you see it is a boy, kill it.” (Exodus 1:16) Shifrah and Puah teach us all that we must never just follow orders. We must interpose our conscience and our human ability to determine what is right and what is wrong before we follow any orders.

Moses’ mother Yocheved refuses to knuckle under to Pharaoh’s vile decree that every Hebrew baby boy be drowned in the Nile, and Miriam, his sister, watches and with perfect timing runs up to Pharaoh’s daughter when she finds the baby and offers to provide a nursemaid for him.

The rabbis of the Midrash enhance Miriam’s role. A Talmudic tale (B.Sotah 12A) teaches that Amram, Moses’ father, was the leader of the Hebrew laves at that time. In order to avoid the pain of Pharaoh’s cruel decree, Amram ordered all the Hebrew men to divorce their wives, but Miriam convinced her father not to give in to Egyptian oppression.

By all logic as a “good” daughter, loyal subject of her King and worshipper like the Egyptians of her father as a god, she would have simply tipped Moses’ basket over and drowned him. But she too answered to a higher authority. Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the Bible, but the Sages call her, “Bityah”, “”the daughter of the Almighty.” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:3)

Finally there is a strange but interesting passage in Exodus 24-26 that tells of Zipporah circumcising their son after Moses had neglected to do so. It is a passage the rabbis could have interpreted any way they wish, but the rabbis (Shmot Rabbah 5:8) credit Zipporah with saving Moses life by her quick thinking and decisive action!

These and the many others like them are the stories we Reform Jews must tell if we want to be effective agents in the ongoing struggle for gender equality in Judaism and in our world.

 The task of our generation is twofold: 1. To interpret the Bible to all of those who will hear our voices and/or read our words to give women the enormous credit they are due but do not receive in traditional circles, and 2. to continue the forward progress in women’s rights begun by the Sages of the Mishnah until women and men are held in completely equal regard.

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What Does “Created in God’s Image” Mean?

Lights in the Forest, edited by my good friend Rabbi Paul Citrin, has just been published by CCAR Press. I am pleased to have contributed four essays to the volume and to serve on its Editorial Committee.The first of my essays on what it means to me to be created in the divine image follows.

 

      It certainly does not mean that we look like God. It means that of all the creatures on earth we have the most God-like powers. It means that we human beings are in charge of and responsible for life on this planet. It is an awesome responsibility with which God has entrusted us.

God charges us: (Genesis 1:28)

פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשה

ורדו בדגת הים ובעוף השמים

ובכל-חיה הרמשת על-הארץ

My rendering of this passage is: Be fruitful and multiply fill up the earth and take responsibility for it. And rule compassionately over the fish of the sea the birds of the air and all the living things that creep on the earth.”

My translation reflects the midrashic teaching (Bereshit Rabbah 8:11) that we human beings stand midway between God and all the other animals on earth.   Like the animals we eat, drink, sleep, eliminate our waster, procreate and die. But in a godlike way, we have the power to think, analyze, communicate and shape our environment in a manner far beyond other creatures.

In Gates of Repentance’ afternoon service for Yom Kippur (p. 415) we find a magnificent liturgical expression of what it means to be created in the divine Image:

We were unlike other creatures.

Not for us the tiger’s claws,

the elephant’s thick hide,

or the crocodile’s scaly armor.

To the gazelle we were slow of foot,

To the lioness a weakling,

And the eagle thought us bound to earth.

But You gave us powers they could not comprehend:

a skillful hand,

a probing mind…

a soul aspiring to know and fulfill its destiny

 

Being created in the divine image means that we humans are the only creatures on earth who can mine ore from the side of a mountain, turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human brain or an open heart. But we are also the only creatures on earth that can go to that same mountain, mine the same ore turn it into iron and steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or maim. Being created in God’s image means we have awesome, earth enhancing or earth shattering power.

God’s hope in creating us in the divine image is that we use our power to help create on this planet a more just, caring and compassionate society than exists today. But we-–not God–will decide if we choose to do so or not.

 

 

 

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Elul Arrives

Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19 C Hasidic leader in Poland taught that everyone should have two pockets, each inscribed with a different quotation. In one, for when he/she is feeling puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when a person feels that his/her efforts are of no consequence, let her/him read: “For my sake the world was created.”

 During this month of Elul we Jews dedicate our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest we know that there are many times we have fallen short of both our own ideals and the Almighty’s hopes for us as creatures created in the Divine image. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or little more than dust and ashes.

 At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!

 We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. The world was created for us human beings to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from dong something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless.

 But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments ore even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27) we are ”but dust and ashes.”

 One of life’s must difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair. Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

 I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th c.) noted the zodiacal symbol for Tishri (next month, the month which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) is a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.

 Think of the power the image can have. If each of us awakens feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our communities and our world.

 

 

 

 

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