Is The Creation Story in the Torah True?

As we turn again to the beginning of our Torah, I want to address the question of, “Is it true?”

For me the stories in the Torah represent a religious or poetic truth–not necessarily historical or scientific truth.  That type of truth is why I cherish the Torah, place it lovingly in a special ark and even hold it up proudly after I read it to proclaim in Hebrew and English:  “This is the Torah which Moses gave to the children of Israel at the command of God.”

For example, if I am walking through a meadow, and I say with a sigh as I gaze at my beloved, “Your eyes are like two beautiful pools,” I do not mean that I may dive in to take a swim.  Neither, though, am I lying.  I am expressing a profound type of truth that wells up from the depths of my soul. (This example is found in Leonard Gardner,, Genesis: The Teacher’s Guide, published in 1966 by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, on pages 18-19.)

As an example, let us consider the story of Creation. When the rabbis studied the story they did not ask scientific or historical questions like, “Did this really happen this way?”  Rather they asked questions like “Why did God choose to begin the account of creation (I.e. why does the first word of the Torah begin) with the letter Bet (ב,the second letter of the alphabet rather than Aleph, א, the first)?

They answered that just as the top and bottom of the letter are closed, so too are secrets of the essence of God above and of what happens when a person is laid to rest in the ground below.  Just as the back of the letter is closed, so are God’s actions before the world was created closed to our knowledge.  But the front of the letter is open!  That teaches us that we should concentrate our efforts and our energies on that which is open to us–this world and its mysteries.

In other words, one truth the rabbis derived from the story of creation is that the mysteries of what happened before the world was created, what happens after we die, and a complete knowledge of God’s ways are beyond us and should not be our main concerns.  Living lives of purpose and meaning and making this world as good as we can while we are here—these, the rabbis urged, should be the object of our efforts. (See Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 1:10 and/or Eugene Mihaly’s book A Song to Creation, published by Hebrew Union College press in 1975, pages 38-41)

Going a bit further, then the truth of the Story of Creation lies not in the contention that it happened as written.  Rather the truth to be gleaned is that Creation was not an accident, that God is the initiator of Creation, that Creation is meaningful and purposeful and therefore our lives can have meaning and purpose.  Furthermore as creatures created in God’s image–we human beings–not the tiger or the Rhinoceros– are in charge of and responsible for this world and what happens to it.  It is an awesome responsibility. The final element of truth to the story for Jewish thought is that it includes the idea of Shabbat.  If God can rest, we too can rest and reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives.

“Sea Cruise” Reaches Its Final Port

Frankie Ford, who died last week at 76, sure got a lot of mileage out of one million selling record. He was only 19 when—at a time when black artists got little air play on mainstream stations—he covered Huey (Piano) Smith’s  composition, Sea Cruise.

It is one of those songs that has found its way into the repertoires of many artists and countless performances over the years. Sea Cruise laid the foundation for Mr. Ford’s successful show business career that spanned more than half a century. Those who remember the movie American Hot Wax will recall Mr. Ford’s performance as a highlight.

Sea Cruise peaked at number 11, but its legacy is far greater than most number 1’s.

Yes, he had only one huge hit, but he was a fine singer, a fantastic piano player and a marvellous entertainer. He  considered his flamboyance “a marriage” of sorts between the styles of Liberace and Little Richard.

I feel privileged that I saw him just a couple of years ago at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, Connecticut. It was apparent that he was quite ill, and he could hardly walk. When he was announced, I was not alone when I feared he would tumble over before he reached his piano. He sat down slowly—very slowly— and settled himself.

But when he played the opening riff of Sea Cruise applause rocked the building, and the years and the infirmity disappeared. It was unforgettable.

Now Sea Cruise has reached its final port, but I remain grateful to Frankie Ford for sharing his talent and his incredible flair with so many for so many years. Watch the clip above, and you will see what I mean. Mr. Ford had quite a journey, but now he is safe at home.

Honoring Torah in German and Russian

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my mother’s father being in synagogue with me on Simchat Torah. The rabbi always called the hakafot (processions around the synagogue with people carrying Torah scrolls) by age and my grandfather, Benjamin Goldstein, who was born in Russia, was in the first one. I don’t remember him as a particularly religious man (he died when I was 10), but I will never forget the joy on his face when he carried the Torah around the synagogue.

Simchat Torah was (as it still is in many places) the occasion for the Consecration ceremony for students beginning their religious school studies. We were all called up to the bimah for a blessing, and then we each received a miniature Torah. The small gold or blue boxes containing the small scrolls were piled up on the steps to the bimah.

When I was six, I must confess, I came back into the empty sanctuary after the service was over and helped myself to as many of the remaining miniature Torahs as I could carry. I cannot remember how I hid this larcenous deed from my parents, but I stashed the contraband in the bottom draw of my bedroom night table where they remained for many years.

When I pilfered those scrolls, Torah study was not what I had in mind as a professional pursuit (I planned to be the Catcher for the New York Yankees), but I hope the Almighty will consider my rabbinical career to be suitable penance.

The scrolls certainly came in handy in later years.

During the meal at the first communal Seder I conducted at my congregation in Columbia, MD, I remembered to my horror that I had forgotten (and no one on the committee had thought of it either) to buy a prize for the young person who found the afikomen (the piece of matzah hidden and looked for after the meal by the children present). While everyone ate, I quickly drove the mile to our house and grabbed a miniature scroll to give to the winner. I don’t think I have ever revealed that I was making a young boy or girl party to my trafficking in stolen goods.

On Simchat Torah we read the last verses of the book of Deuteronomy and then immediately begin again to read the opening lines of Genesis. Even when I was six the message came through: the study of Torah never ends.

As years have gone by I consider it increasingly remarkable that we have a special celebration just to honour study and learning!

While meeting to prepare for our celebration here in Bad Segeberg this year, the make up of the planning committee necessitated translating our respective ideas into German, Russian and English!

Much of our discussion revolved around how to honor members of the local Christian community who raised funds to purchase the Torah scroll from which we shall read and did so much in other ways to help the Bad Segeberg Reform congregation re-establish itself.

As we worship in freedom in the beautiful synagogue that sits proudly not far from the center of town, I will give thanks for the opportunity to help to replant the love and learning of Torah in the land of my father’s birth where evil forces sought to uproot our precious heritage.

I will also rejoice that a sizeable number of Russian Jews have found freedom here in Germany to practice our faith that the communists tried to stamp out.

Yes, a celebration conducted in Hebrew, English, German and Russian seems such a wonderful way to honor the Torah and all of the ideals for which it stands!

Die Tora abschließen nur um neu zub Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt V’Zot Ha-B’racha, Deuteronomium 33,1- 34,12

Oft fragen mich Leute: Warum erlaubt Gott Mose nicht, in das verheißene Land einzuziehen?

Tatsächlich betritt niemand von uns das verheißene Land. Wir alle sterben mit nicht verwirklichten Träumen und unerfüllten Hoffnungen.

Aber Mose braucht uns nicht Leid zu tun. Er starb in hohem Alter, aber in voller Kraft. Er konnte das verheißene Land von ferne sehen und hatte die Ehre vom EwigEinen selbst beerdigt zu werden. Und darüberinaus lesen wir: Nie wieder wird sich ein Prophet erheben, dem der EwigEine פנים אל פנים begegnet, wörtlich “von Angesicht zu Angesicht” (Deuteronomium 34,10).

Von Angesicht zu Angesicht lässt sich verstehen als: direkter als jemals jemand bevor.

Aber bei all seiner Größe offenbart Mose menschliche Schwächen. Sein Temperament konnte explodieren, und seine Geduld schwinden.

Spätere jüdische Traidtionen kritisieren ihn, weil er die ersten beiden Bundes-Tafeln zerbrochen hat, und weil er Wasser für die durstigen Menschen hervorbrachte, indem er mit dem Stab gegen einen Felsen schlug anstatt ihn anzusprechen, wie Gott es gesagt hatte.

Aber ich stimme überein mit denen, die meinen, dass, wie ernst diese Eigenwilligkeiten auch waren, sie nicht ausreichenten um ihn davon abzuhalten, den Jordan zu überqueren. Vielmehr erinnert uns der Tod des Mose daran, dass das Leben auch ohne uns weitergeht, egal wie wichtig wir sind. Darum ist es unsere Aufgabe so viel Gutes zu tun, wie wir können, im begrenzten Zeitraum, der uns zugedacht ist. Welch wunderbare Einsicht am Ende der Tora.

Aber wir schließen nur um sofort die Schöpfungsgeschichte der Genesis zu bedenken und die Verantwortung, die uns verliehen ist als Geschöpfe geschaffen im אלהים בצלם in Gottes Bild.

Translationn: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg

Das zu tun mit dem Bild des Mose in unserem Rückspiegel befeuert unsere Leidenschaft zu werden,waser r wa עבד ה׳, “Diener des EwigEinen”, der seine Gaben nutz eine gerechtere, solidarischere und mitfühlendere Gesellschaft zu schaffen.

Closing the Torah Only to Begin Again (Quick Commentary, Parashat V’Zot Ha-B’racha, Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12)

Often people ask, why did God not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land?

In reality none of us enter the Promised Land. We all die with dreams unfulfilled and hopes unrealized.

But we need not feel sorry for Moses. He dies at a ripe old age in full vigor. He has the privilege of viewing the land from afar and has the honor of burial by the Eternal One. Moreover, we read: “Never again has there arisen a prophet whom the Eternal One encountered פנים אל פנים, literally ‘face to face.'” (Deuteronomy 34:10)

We understand “face to face” to mean more directly than anyone before or since.

 But for all his greatness Moses displayed human foibles. His temper could explode, and his patience could wear thin.

Later Jewish tradition criticizes him for breaking the first set of Tablets of the Covenant and bringing forth water for the thirsty people by banging his staff against the rock instead of addressing it as God had instructed.

But I agree with those who claim that, serious though they were these transgressions were not sufficient to keep him from crossing the Jordan. Rather, Moses death reminds us that no matter how important we are, life will go on without us. Therefore our task is to do the most good that we can in the finite amount of time allotted to us.

What a wonderful lesson to close the Torah!

But we conclude only to immediately ponder Genesis’ creation story and the responsibilities imposed upon us as creatures created אלהים בצלם in the image of God. As we do Moses’ reflection in our rear view mirror fuels our passion to become, as he was ה׳ עבד, “servants of the Eternal One,” who use our talents to create a more just, caring and compassionate society.

A Plea to Israel to Heed the Sukkah’s Message

When we sit in the sukkah, we have no protection from the sun, the wind, the heat or the cold. Our Sages encourage us to leave the sukkah to escape a driving rain, and we are wise to do so. But far too many people in our world do not have dry warm-in-winter, cool-in-summer homes to which they can retreat.

The sukkah teaches us to feel the pain of these people and care for them.

Today, untold thousands are fleeing Syria in fear of their lives. Germany is opening its doors.  Israel is not.

Yes, I know the dangers and the problems, but Israel should be up to the challenge especially when the reward is the saving of many lives.

What  a powerful message to the world Israel could send  about its values an ideals by taking in—after appropriate vetting—a number of those fleeing for their lives from an enemy country.

More than any other commandment, the Torah emphasises our obligation to care for and protect the stranger. I am sad that Israel seems to be forgetting this cardinal principle of its heritage.

ופרוס עלינו סוכת שלומיך — Spread over us the sukkah of Your Peace!

GIRL TALK: The Lessons of the Sukkah (A Short Story)

Julie Goldstein looked forward each year to the time she and her family built the sukkah.

“Can I invite Sharon to help us,” she asked her mother. “Her family never builds a sukkah, and I know she would love it.”

“Of course,” her mother said.

Sharon and Julie worked hard to build the sukkah with Mr. And Mrs. Goldstein. They carried the boards from the garage, helped hammer the nails. They drove into the country where Julie’s mother had arranged with Mr. and Mrs. O‘Brien to pick some of their corn left standing. They cut down sheaves of corn and loaded them into the trunk of the family car. They drove back and used the stalks for the roof of the sukkah and to help decorate the sides. Then they decorated the sukkah with pumpkins, gourds and all sort of other vegetables. They set up a table in the sukkah, and they sat down.

Mr. Goldstein brought out a plate of cookies and juice. “You girls worked so hard to build the sukkah,” he said. “You deserve some refreshments.” He left he cookies and juice on the table and went inside.

The two girls sat in the newly built sukkah and enjoyed the warm breeze that flowed through it.

“That was fun,” Sharon said, “but why do you build the sukkah in the first place?”

”Well,” said Julie, “lots of reasons. First of all it says in the Torah that God wants us to build it to remind us of the temporary huts our people lived in when we left slavery in Egypt and wandered in the Promised Land.”

“But don’t we celebrate that at Passover,” Sharon asked?

“Yes, but then we think about what it is like to be slaves. On Sukkot we think about how hard it is to move from place to place and have very little. There are lots of people who live like that, and Sukkot reminds us how we can help them.”

“Last week,” Sharon said, “my family and I helped build a house for people who don’t have one. That sounds like one of the reasons we build the sukkah.”

“It sure does,” Julie agreed. “You must have felt great when you finished.”

“It was wonderful,” Sharon answered. “The family was so happy when they moved in. I can still see the expression on the children’s faces. Are there any other reasons to build the sukkah?”

“Many,” said Julie. “Sukkot celebrates the harvest. It reminds us that there are so many people who do not have a harvest—who do not have enough to eat.”

“Didn’t we think of them at our food drive at Yom Kippur?”

“Sure,” answered Julie, “but we could have a food drive everyday, and people would still be hungry. Sukkot reminds us how lucky we are.”

As the day gave way to night Julie and Sharon noticed how beautiful the almost full moon looked. “The moon will be completely full on the first night of Sukkot tomorrow,” Julie said.

“When I sit in the sukkah,” she continued, “and look up at the stars I feel closer to God. It makes me feel like a partner with God in trying to make the world a better place. At Temple the rabbi taught us that God wants us all to use our talents to make a better world. Sukkot makes me think about that.”

“Maybe,” Sharon answered, “that’s the best reason of all to build the sukkah,” as the two girls looked at the stars together.

The Parsonage Has A Sukkah!

The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot begins tonight, five days after Yom Kippur. We celebrate by building a sukkah, a small hut outside our homes to symbolize the temporary homes of our ancestors while they traveled through the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt.

“A child who has the experience of building a sukkah,” my Theology/Liturgy Professor, Jakob J. Petuchowski, of blessed memory, used to tell us, “has a Jewish experience worth six months of Sunday school.”

The outstanding American writer, Noah Gordon, in his 1964 best-selling novel The Rabbi, captured the essence of just how important a sukkah can be for a child: “The bond between Michael and his zaydeh (grandfathergrew stronger during the early fall, when the days began to shorten and the autumn feast of Sukkot drew near. Each autumn during his four-year stay with the Rivkins Zaydeh built in their postage-stamp back yard a sukkah, or ceremonial hut. The sukkah was a small house of wooden planks covered with boughs and sheaves. It was hard work for an old man to build it, especially since hayfields, corn shocks and trees were not plentiful in Brooklyn. Sometimes he had to go deep into Jersey for raw materials, and he badgered Abe for weeks until he was driven to the country in the family Chevrolet.

‘Why do you bother?’ Dorothy asked him once when she brought a glass of tea to where he strained and perspired to raise the hut. ‘Why do you work so hard?’

‘To celebrate the harvest.’

‘What harvest, for God’s sake? We’re not farmers. You sell canned goods. Your son makes corsets for ladies with big behinds. Who has a harvest?’

He looked pityingly at this female his son had made his daughter. ‘For thousands of years, since the Jews emerged from the Wilderness, in ghettos and in palaces they have observed Sukkot. You don’t have to raise cabbages to have a harvest.’ His big hand grasped Michael behind the neck and pushed him toward his mother. ‘Here is your harvest.’ She didn’t understand, and by then Zaydeh had been living with them long enough not to expect understanding from her.”

Our family sukkah to which we invited congregants every year was a very precious part of our family’s Jewish identity over the years. Our children were fascinated by it as babies, loved decorating it as children, and helped set it up when they were older. They loved inviting their non-Jewish friends over to help decorate. Now they have children of their own, and celebrate Sukkot with them.

Each year we looked forward to having our congregants join us for a reception in the sukkah. As much as our sukkah meant to our children, it meant at least as much to us.

In addition to the huts our ancestors lived in when they wandered through the desert for 40 years, the sukkah today symbolizes that too many have homes to live in all year around that offer no more protection against the elements than these fragile huts. The Sukkah teaches us that the less fortunate are our responsibility. We cannot in good conscience turn away.

Yes, Rabbi Petuchowski was right about the sukkah and six months of Sunday school. In fact I think he might have  understated the case.

In Bad Segeberg, Germany, our hosts Pastorin Ursula Sieg and Pastor Martin Pommerening got wind of how important the custom was to us back home and took it on themselves to erect a sukkah in their backyard.

This gesture means so much to us. This sukkah more than any other we have ever enjoyed symbolizes our hope for inter religious cooperation and reconciliation that inspired us to spend these ten weeks in Germany.

Eternal God, spread סוכת שלום “the Sukkah of Peace” over us, over all Israel and over all humanity! May we may dwell in it together in harmony!


Sukkah photo

Pastorin Ursula Sieg (l) Pastor Martin Pommerening and my wife Vickie sitting in the magnificent sukkah Martin and Ursula erected for us to honor the festival of sukkot in their backyard.

Rose Garden: A Tribute to Lynn Anderson

September 25, 2015 –Today would have been Lynn Anderson’s sixty-eighth birthday.

She died (ironically on my son Leo’s thirty-ninth birthday) on July 30 of this year.

I first heard Rose Garden in Amsterdam!

 Although it was released in December 1970 I first heard I Never Promised You a Rose Garden as I was walking along a canal in Amsterdam where I vacationed for a few days on my way home from studying in Israel in June 1971. Ms. Anderson was performing it on a TV screen that I saw by accident though the window of a bar that I passed. The song has never let me go, and when I learned of Ms Anderson’s death at such a relatively young age I wanted to learn more about her.

Like many casual music fans, I thought of Ms Anderson as a “one hit wonder.” WRONG! She had eleven number one country hits and many other songs that charted.

 I thought she was strikingly pretty, but (as Michael Learned playing Olivia Walton once described her TV daughter Mary Ellen) “just this side of beautiful.” Her slightly less than perfect features made her all the more appealing to me.

I Googled her and learned that in addition to her singing, Ms Anderson was an expert horsewoman with several national championships to her credit.

I also watched as many YouTube Lynn Anderson performance videos as I could find dating from her days  as the ingénue featured singer in the late 60’s on the Lawrence Welk show.

She had an amazing voice, clearly loved performing and really knew how to work a crowd. Her humanity shines though the tapes.

 How she (or anyone else) could memorize the incredibly complex lyrics of “I’ve Been Everywhere Man” boggles my mind. My favorite performance though, was a relatively recent live rendition of the Johnny Ray classic, “Cry!”

Now I am old enough to remember and revere Johnny Ray’s voice, and I was skeptical about anyone else singing his great song. But Anderson’s version is worthy of the original, and I love the fact that she acknowledged it is Johnny Ray’s song in an interview and pays tribute to him.

In the video Ms Anderson crosses her fingers as she is about to come to the vocally challenging dramatic climax of the song. Then, after she absolutely nails it, she sort of wipes her brow in relief. What an endearing human touch!

 Physically, the willowy blond beauty that I first saw in Amsterdam thickened over the years. Still, it shocked me to see the puffed up, face of an old lady in the mug shot published after her third DUI arrest in Nashville on a street not two minutes from the house where our family lived for eleven years.

Now, Lynn Anderson is not the first celebrity to have issues with alcohol, and I admire the way she took responsibility for her actions, apologized and pledged to do whatever is necessary to atone and recover.

I am sorry that her fatal heart attack on July 30 robbed her of that chance.

For all her hits and enduring popularity as a performer, Rose Garden will always be Lynn Anderson’s enduring legacy. Yes, some called it kitschy, but I find the lyrics brilliant, and I–like so many others—continue to love the song. Ms Anderson was ever grateful for what it did for her career.

Speaking about it in a 1987 interview she said: “It was popular because it touched on emotions. I believe that Rose Garden was released at just the right time. People were trying to recover from the Vietnam years. The message in the song—that if you just take hold of life and go ahead, you can make something out of nothing—people just took to that.”

Admittedly, I have thought much more about Lynn Anderson since learning of her death than I ever did while she was alive. I will play her videos often, and she will continue to inspire me.


She took hold of life, went ahead and made something out of nothing. I take to that.

Eine ernstezunehmende Erinnerung Kurzkommentar zum Wochenabschnitt Ha’azinu (Deuteronomium 32, 1-52)

Welch kraftvolle Worte eröffnen das Gedicht aus dem dem der Tora-Abschnitt dieser Woche besteht: “Leih dein Ohr, O Himmel… hör gut zu, O Erde! Lass Gottes Wort wie Tau fallen und wie Regen, der das Gras nährt.”

Wir zitieren Verse dieses Gedichtes, wenn wir einen Verstorbenen zu seiner letzten Ruhestätte begleiten: Gott ist ein Fels. Seine Werke sind vollkommen und seine Wege sind gerecht und richtig.(32,4)

Leider ist die Bedeutung dieses Verses in solch einem emotionalen Moment komplett verloren gegangen. Die Worte darin – תמים, משפט und צדיק – bringen uns zurück zu den Grundlagen des Bündnis, das Gott zuerst mit Abraham schloss.

Gott beauftragt Abraham mit diesen drei Worten, mit denen unser Glaube beginnt und die ihm bis heute zugrunde liegen: תמים (würdig) zu sein, ein Leben zu führen – und die Kinder zu lehren ein Leben zu führen – gekennzeichnet durch צדקה (die gleiche Wurzel wie צדיק Rechtschaffenheit) und משפט (Gerechtigkeit).

Wenn wir den Toten oder die Tote zum Grab begleiten, dann sollten diese Worte uns fordern:

Genau wie die Person, deren Leben zu Ende ist, die Bündnispflichten erfüllte (und hier sind wir glücklich, dass wir das bei dieser Person nicht anzweifeln müssen), so müssen wir es.

Auch auf den anderen Auftrag Gottes an Abraham: “Sei ein Segen!” (Genesis 12,2), bezieht sich unser Gedicht, indem es den Segen des gottgegebenen Taus und Regens erwähnt. Wir verdienen dieses Notwendige nur, wenn wir einen besseren Job machen, als bislang, es zu pflegen.

Anders ausgedrückt: Wir verdienen Gottes Segen des Lebens und des Lebensunterhaltes (Leviticus 26:3 ff) nur, wenn wir durch Taten der Gerechtigkeit, Fürsorge und des Mitgefühls unser Leben zu einem Segen für das Leben anderer machen.

Translation: with thanks to Pastor Ursula Sieg