How Quickly We Forget What We Should Remember Most

Quick comment on Torah portion Miketz and the Story of Joseph

While in the dungeon, Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, and told him that he would soon be released and restored to his post.

Remember me to Pharaoh, Joseph begged the cupbearer, because I was framed and don’t deserve to be here. (Genesis 40:14-15)

“Sure,” I would imagine the cupbearer answered, “No prob!”
But the cupbearer forgot about Joseph. (Genesis 40:23)

Later, when it could serve his purpose, he recalled and told Pharaoh.
There is this Hebrew in the dungeon who knows how to interpret dreams. (Genesis 41:9-12)

This minor incident in the Joseph story offers a wonderful look at human behavior. We quickly forget the kindness others do for us. But oh how we nurture our grudges!

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Shouldn’t we savor, recall, recount and try to repay every act of “Hesed” (the biblical word for loyalty and loving kindness) that people do for us?

And should we not program our memories to filter out more quickly the pain of insult and slight?

Should we not be as eager to be gracious to those on the lower edge of society as those in a position to help us?

May the lights of Shabbat and of Chanukah add light and warmth to our lives and encourage us to bring light and warmth to others!

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Guest Blog: Introducing Ursula

My readers by now all know of the amazing German Pastor Ursula Sieg. She arranged all of the details and logistics of the wonderful ten weeks Vickie and I recently spent in Germany. She and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening hosted us in their home, saw to our schedule and made sure we got to every place we had to be. Ursula also conceived and curated an amazing exhibit about Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg, a 93-year old artist who fled Nazi Germany as a child, for the benefit of students in the Holstenschule in Neumünster. Vickie and I are more grateful than we an express for their friendship and everything they did for us.

In addition to her off-the-chart administrative and organizational skills, Pastor Sieg is also an ardent student of the Hebrew Bible and a person who thinks deeply and critically about issues of religious thought. Because she has been such a source of light to Vickie and me, it is a pleasure to welcome her as Guest Blogger as we prepare to welcome, the Feast of Chanukah, our Festival of Lights!

The Visiting God
By Ursula Sieg

Although Stephen and Vickie’s visit was enriching for many in the German area of Holstein, Martin and I felt it was the most enriching for us since we had the privilege of hosting Vickie and Stephen in our home for ten weeks. I would like to share here some pieces of the treasure they left with us.

On one Sunday Martin and I, both Lutheran pastors, and Stephen had to give sermons in different churches on the same text from Exodus 34. So we decided to have a Torah study on Shabbat morning, as we loved to do when we visited Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.

Verses 6 and 7 contain key words in the Bible, which remain a burden for many Christians after the Nazi era, World War II and the Shoah. It is all about God’s mercy until we read that God punishes sinners for three or four generations. That is the popular understanding of these verses. And it is true. What our parents, grandparents and grand grandparents did and experienced in that time is still haunting us, and it does not make a difference if our ancestors were victims suffering the cruelty of Nazi perpetrators or if they acted out Nazi policies. Both victims and perpetrators and the descendants of both continue to struggle. Many don’t really know why they struggle so. But we in Germany do know that we are still dealing with this heritage. And professionals in psychology confirm that the words in Exodus are valid: Yes, it lasts until the fourth generation.

Stephen contributed a very helpful and moving rabbinic teaching about 34:1: Moses is carrying two new tablets to the mountaintop that he, not God, had to hew from the rock. Please read it in his blog (www.rabbifuchs.com) posting “The Church of the Broken Cross” (www.rabbifuchs.com, click on Blog). I’ll trace another line.

In his famous German language Bible edition Martin Luther translated the Hebrew word, “pakad” as “heimsuchen,” which literally means, “visiting home”. It could be a comforting word that means, “visiting somebody to bring him or her home.” But in German it became a synonym for punishment in a very hard way. “Heimsuchung” is a catastrophe to which nobody can respond.

But Martin Luther’s translation is very close to the Hebrew word (For those who not know: Lutheran Pastors in Germany are mandated to learn Bible-Hebrew for their study) “pakad“. Looking at some of the 301 places in the Hebrew bible using “pakad” the basic meaning is “visiting to learn how one is doing”. The visitor is a person in charge, a father looking at his children, a businessperson looking at the work of the employees, a king looking around in his kingdom. It is not only a nice visit for a coffee. It is a visit with consequences. Punishment is only one possible consequence. Other consequences could be a praise for good work, encouragement for difficult tasks, instruction and teaching, comfort in affliction, appointing somebody for a position after finding him or her worth it, fulfillment of a former promise, help if needed. God decided to liberate the Israelite people from Egypt after visiting them and seeing how badly they are treated. The visit could also be like one an envoy makes. An example is how Jesse sends David to see how his brothers are doing as soldiers in Saul’s troops against the Philistines.

The popular understanding of verse 7 “God is punishing the children and grandchildren for the sins of the fathers” is wrong. It comes from a misunderstanding of Luther’s word “Heimsuchen“. The right understanding is “God pays attention to the children, grandchildren, to everybody in the first, second third or fourth line related to the person doing evil.” God is visiting them to see how they are doing; how they are dealing with the impact of the sin that important persons committed.

I found a very helpful commentary that explained: At that time four generations lived together in one house, in one place. A wrongdoing affected them all directly. They could become victims of it, suffering because of the sin of their parents or relatives or they could learn by their example … However, they have to deal with the sin of their ancestors. But when children become adults, it is up to them to either stop doing it or continue to practice it, fight against the wrongdoing or defend it, to mourn and offer compensation for it or increase it, seek to learn the lessons of the past or remain lost in cluelessness…

God is visiting to see how we are doing and what is needed. It is different for each person. It is comfort and support, it is teaching and fostering, it is charge and punishment, and it is praise and new tasks. These actions are determined by God’s character. The visiting God introduces him/herself in verse 6 as compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith. God’s intention is not striving for power and wealth and not revenge or hate. God’s intention is our understanding of “Shalom” — as Stephen would say -– “a just, caring and compassionate society.”

Stephen and Vickie’s visit was a visit like this. When Stephan Block, Propst in Neumünster, showed Stephen and Vickie the Anschar Church, he told the story of Pastor Ernst Szymanowski-Biberstein. He was pastor in Kaltenkirchen around 1930 and an avid Nazi. He moved to Neumünster and was Propst (a leading pastor) there, than moved as Propst to Bad Segeberg, than he left the church and participated in WWII committing mass murder. Most of his victims were Jews. He was tried and sentenced to death at Nuremberg, but the church asked for mercy and his sentence was changed to life in prison. After a few years he was set free and worked for a short time in a church office.

I knew the story, but in this moment I shuddered because each day I drove Stephen and Vickie between Bad Segeberg, Neumünster, Kiel and Kaltenkirchen, where this pastor who did such evil lived and worked and got support from leaders of the church. Stephen and Vickie encountered his successors and saw how they deal with this heritage.

Of course those who still harbor Nazi ideology or resentments towards Jews did not attend the events with Vickie and Stephen. Whether they felt it or not they are punished by not getting to know this amazing couple. For everybody else it was comforting, strengthening and encouraging to hear messages offering deeper knowledge, understanding and wisdom. They let us feel God’s compassion and mercy.

I also felt pain and repentance because I saw that Vickie and Stephen were suffering and mourning at the memorials of lost synagogues. I felt their sadness when they encountered the small and struggling Reform Jewish communities in the country that was the rich center of Reform Judaism until 1933. And I felt their pain when they told of their parents’ hardship and losses caused by our ancestors. It pained my conscience to feel that they are suffering because of the Holocaust. Vickie and Stephen’s visit was not just for a coffee. They did not avoid the horrors of the past, but they encouraged us through their presence to do better. Every thing that they did and said was hugged by compassion, love and forgiveness. Thinking back to Vickie and Stephen’s visit helps me to understand the visiting God.

For me the birth of Jesus, which we Christians celebrate these days, is also a visit reenacting Exodus 34:7. Looking at Jesus from God’s self-introduction in Exodus 34 might shed new light on the Gospel.

And we, are we visitors like God is, or like those God would send as envoys to those who have to deal with a burden from their ancestors? A comment from Stephen to verse 6 was: “We are encouraged to be like God, compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith.” A visitor like this is always a Messiah.

Happy Chanukah to my Jewish readers and Merry Christmas to those who celebrate with me.

 Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah with her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening and Vickie .  Martin and Ursula built the Sukkah of us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah with her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening and Vickie. Martin and Ursula built the Sukkah of us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

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Finding Ourselves in the Story of Joseph

When I study or teach Torah, the truly important question I ask is: Where are we in the text? What does this story teach us that can help us to live more meaningful lives and become better representatives of the Divine Image in which the Almighty created us?

Miketz, the second of four weekly portions which tell the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, chronicles two of the most amazing turnarounds in all literature.

The rise of Joseph from imprisoned slave to second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt is the more familiar of the two. One minute Joseph was in jail for a crime he did not commit. Suddenly, servants shave him, give him fresh clothes and whisk him into the presence of Pharaoh to interpret the monarch’s dreams. But Joseph did more than interpret. He seized the opportunity before him and offered Pharaoh advice as to how he should handle the economic crisis that loomed in Egypt’s future! What chutzpah! What courage! Almost in an instant Joseph became Pharaoh’s chief economic adviser and began to ride in Egypt’s Chariot Number Two!

What a meteoric rise from the lowest depths to the highest heights, but where are we in the text? Hopefully, like Joseph, we see and seize the special opportunities that present themselves to use our talents to make life better for others in some way.

The second turnaround is less overtly dramatic but every bit as remarkable as the rise of Joseph from slave to court Jew. It concerns Joseph’s older half brother Judah. To understand the lesson that begins in this week’s portion and reaches its climax next week is to understand why we carry his name and called ourselves Jews as opposed to Naphtaleans or Danites or the name of some other tribal head.

Judah is the brother responsible for selling Joseph away as a slave and bringing immeasurable grief upon his father. The Judah we meet in this week’s sedrah is very different from the person who years earlier convinced his brother’s to sell Joseph as a slave, bloody his special coat and bring it to their father so that Jacob would think that a wild beast had torn him apart. Like his father Jacob before him Judah has grown through the negative experiences of his life.

In fact in Genesis, chapter 38, the Torah interrupts the flow of the Joseph story to illustrate one of Judah’s formative lessons. His daughter in law Tamar, one of the Bible’s most underrated heroes, taught him about integrity and dramatically impressed upon him the impact of his actions upon others. This incident is just one of many biblical examples of a woman playing an indispensable role in a man’s world rise to eventual covenantal greatness. To his credit, Judah has learned his lesson well.

In our portion, famine grips the land like a vise. The food from the brothers’ first buying trip to the grain centers of Egypt is exhausted. The vizier of the land, whom the brothers did not know was their brother Joseph, made it crystal clear that only if their youngest brother Benjamin is with them could they buy more food. It is Judah, alone among his brothers, who realizes that there is no choice. Despite Jacob’s reluctance to send him, Benjamin must go down to Egypt. Judah, once the instigator of a heinous crime, now becomes the responsible son determined to save his family from famine. He calmly but clearly forces Jacob to face the gravity of their situation, pledges personal responsibility for Benjamin to his father and exclaims: “If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever.” (Genesis 43:9)

In next week’s portion we see that Judah is as good as his word! He is willing to remain a slave in Egypt so that Benjamin can return to his father!

So, where are we in the text of Parashat Miketz? Hopefully, we shall aspire to stand in the shoes of Joseph and Judah! Hopefully we shall courageously seize the opportunities before us to make a positive difference! Hopefully, too, we shall learn through our misdeeds to become more just, caring and compassionate partners with the Eternal One in the creation of a better world!

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Tamar and Judah: Savvy Woman, Clueless Man

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology during which I point out that  my book tells of several times in Genesis and Exodus when women get it and men are clueless.

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology during which I point out that my book tells of several times in Genesis and Exodus when women get it and men are clueless.

In my book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives (http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Finding-Ourselves-Biblical-Narratives/dp/1427655014/ref=tmm_pap_title_0) I point out that so often in the Bible—beginning with Eve—it is the woman who gets it and the man who is clueless!

There is no better example of this than Judah and Tamar. Although her “air time” in the text is short, Tamar plays a pivotal role in one of Genesis’ most amazing character transformations.
We meet Judah as Joseph’s conniving and greedy older brother. When the brothers scheme to kill their younger brother Joseph, Judah, says, “What profit is there in that? Let’s sell him as a slave instead! (Genesis 37:26-27)”

But when the Joseph story reaches its climax, the man who callously sold his brother as a slave has repented so thoroughly of his horrible deed, that he is now willing to remain a slave to Joseph so that his younger brother Benjamin can go free. (Genesis 44:18-34)

What transformed Judah? It is important to note the chief biblical catalyst for Judah’s metamorphosis was his daughter-in- law, Tamar. Tamar was the wife of Judah’s late, eldest son, Er. According to the custom of levirate marriage (a childless widow would marry her husband’s brother and bear a child in his name), Tamar married Er’s brother, Onan. When he also died, Judah feared the same fate would befall his third son, Shelah. In a misguided effort to save his son’s life, Judah broke his promise and did not give Tamar to Shelah in marriage. Instead, Judah sent Tamar to live as a widow in her father’s home.

Sometime later, after Judah’s own wife dies, and Tamar realized that Judah has allowed her to languish in widowhood; Tamar acted with great courage and resolve. She disguised herself as a prostitute and tempted Judah to have relations with her. As a result, she became pregnant.
When he learned that Tamar was pregnant, Judah was incensed. Yet, when she showed him proof that Judah himself had impregnated her, he was forced to admit, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah” (Genesis 38:26).
Although she does not gain a full measure of justice, Tamar refused to be a passive victim of the system, as it then existed. She showed fortitude and courage. She was willing to risk the consequences in order to stand against injustice. Sharon Pace Jeansonne wrote: “Dissatisfaction can either paralyze people or encourage them to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Tamar, fueled by her own resolve to struggle for what she believed in, never gave up” [Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 106].

Tamar’s courage not only earned her the offspring she craved, but it also transformed Judah from villain to a hero so worthy that our people bear his name.

The sensitivity and empathy that Judah learned at “The Yeshiva of Tamar” enabled him to change the course of biblical history. Only when we learn to change, repent and try to repair our wrongdoings as Judah did do we become worthy practitioners of “Judah-ism.”

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Huffington Post Review: What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives

Guest blogger: Michael Berkowitz

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

The symbolic fight over religion has spilled from the churches to the schools, public meetings, market place and even into the cinema. Superstition seems at high tide. Everyone knows how their imaginary friend “God” would support their causes.

Movies like Heaven is Real, Son of God, and God is Not Dead trumpet the triumph of Christian religion. The United States Supreme Court rolls back Constitutional separation of church and state. Evangelicals mob the media suffusing daily life with a constant diet of rigid Jeremiahs, condemning social change and critical thinking.

Against this backdrop, it was a joy to encounter Rabbi Stephen Fuchs’ What’s in it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. Rabbi Fuchs has given us a refreshing, practical application of how biblical stories may help us deal with the 21st Century. Fuchs goes beyond the literalists battle over truth and historicity to mine these legends for the purpose that more enlightened elders used them: to help organize and inform daily life.

Rabbi Fuchs employs the biblical stories with wisdom, compassion and even humor to gently prod us along a path to better life. More than most contemporaries, he has grasped the essence of faith as a life affirming way to achieve social change. In bright, crisp, direct prose, Rabbi Fuchs shows how such belief may “make the world a better place.” As he says, “The biblical narratives I elucidate relate to this central idea. These narratives can enrich all of our lives whether we see ourselves as religious or not.”

The chapters refreshingly confront us with the issues from these timeless stories: “Eden: Would You Want to Live There?” “Joseph: A Model for Change,” “Slavery: Sensitized for Suffering,” “Six Women Heroes: Where Would We Be Without Them,” “Moses: He Answered the Call to Conscience: Will We?” Fuchs even deals with the issue of non-belief without patronizing or denigrating the non-believers. In his chapter, “What If I Don’t Believe in God?” he reiterates the biblical message that meritorious action is more important even than belief.

Clearly and precisely, this good book goes right to the actual purpose of the older Good Book, making it a useful tool in our lives. Rabbi Fuchs has done us a great service by his thoughtful interpretation and action-oriented guide to the morality of social change.

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Anti-Semitism: Something We Try to Keep in Check But Can’t Seem to CURE

Me speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938

Me speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938


In Leviticus chapter 10 there is a chilling scene: While Aaron was celebrating his investiture as High Priest of Israel, his two older sons, Nadav and Abihu lay dead before him. Just as Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe enjoyed unprecedented economic and social success, Hitler rose to power and suddenly–within twelve years–European Jewry was no more.

Just as the Biblical text tells us that Aaron was silent in the face of the tragedy, so too, the Jewish world was all but silent about the Holocaust for more than 30 years. The enormity of the tragedy belied any attempt to explain, analyze or understand it. To articulate the horror was to relive it.

In the biblical text, though, once Aaron had washed off the anointing oil, and the bodies were outside the precinct of the tent of meeting, the Israelites accepted God’s command to publicly mourn the slain boys.

Our experience with the Holocaust again parallels the Bible. With the passage of time the Jewish community has been able to mourn. Moreover, we have sealed in our collective memory the Holocaust’s enormous reality.

So we commemorate it, we build memorials, we build museums, and we conduct programs and rituals of various types. In so doing we try to make sense of the inexplicable.

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II survivors are rapidly dying off, and our urgency to remember grows. Pseudo-historians challenge the Holocaust’s validity while we Jews continue to think of each of our children in the words of Zechariah, as “A brand plucked from the fire.” (Zechariah 3;2)

Jews have achieved much since the end of World War II. We are comfortable for the most part, and except in the Arab world, there is no official anti-Semitism anywhere. But anti-Semitism is a chronic disease. We can try to keep it in check, but we cannot cure it. Today it is once again on the rise in many parts of Europe. And if it seems to some that we are a bit too sensitive about it, I would rather be too sensitive than oblivious to a force which history proves can rise up to engulf us. We dare not forget that Hitler was the butt of beer hall jokes in the late 20’s. By 1933 he was the Chancellor of all Germany.

In every country where Jews have lived–since we entered Egypt as protected relatives of the Pharaoh’s advisor Joseph–to the present day, our fortunes have been subject to change.

Our protected status in Egypt gave way to slavery and oppression. England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland–just about every country where we have ever lived–has expelled us from its borders. So if we seem a bit too quick to react to anti-Jewish messages, we trust and hope our friends will understand.

There is a famous Hasidic story of an enthusiastic disciple, who exclaimed to his beloved Rabbi, “My Master, I love you.”

“You say you love me,” the Rabbi replied. “Do you know what hurts me?”
“But Master,” the student responded, “how can I know what hurts you?’

“If you do not know what hurts me,” the Rabbi concluded, “you cannot love me.”

What hurts me? The failure or refusal by so many to acknowledge the reality of history’s lessons and the danger of anti-Semitism today hurt me very much.

The renowned Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, of blessed memory, said it best. For nearly 2000 years the classical Christian message was that Christianity was the only valid religion, and that Judaism was an illegitimate faith.

Because of that belief, Christian governments told Jews in place after place, “You cannot live here as Jews.” And in country after country Christian authorities forced us to convert.

Time went on, and often the message became,“You cannot live here.” And Christian and Muslim authorities expelled us from their lands.

Hitler took the message a step further. He simply told us: “You cannot live.”

Because of him one out of every three Jews alive in the world in 1935 had perished by 1945. In Europe it was two out of every three.

Yes, I am indeed concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

I wish I had the cure for this disease, but I don’t. I hope, though, and I pray that being vocal about the lessons of the past and being vigilant each time anti-Semitism raises its ugly head will hopefully keep this scourge from once again raging out of control.

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Chanukah: Beyond the Cruse of Oil

Chanukah is coming soon, and it brings with it a vital message for today. I was fortunate to spend considerable time in Germany this past fall and in Italy in the fall of 2013. Because I observed and served small, struggling but determined-to-thrive Jewish communities in those places, I appreciate the real meaning of the Festival of Lights more than ever before. I dedicate this essay in particular to the fortitude of those two Jewish communities. The first is Beth Shalom Milano that strives to maintain a viable Reform Jewish presence amid a sea of assimilation on the one hand and a hostile Orthodox presence on the other. The second is the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel who offer a warm welcoming Jewish home to a diverse group of people seeking an authentic connection to Jewish life.

For all my years as a rabbi I have tried to teach in every venue at my disposal – pulpit, classroom, office, anywhere I can – that the Festival of Chanukah is not really about a cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. Oh, it is a wonderful legend, but it is about as central to the real meaning of Chanukah as Santa Claus is the reason our Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas.

The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence, and the vital lesson it can teach us today. Long ago in Judaea (about 165 BCE), it was a time of peace and prosperity. The Assyrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea, but they were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.

At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea. There were Jews who were loyal to their religion and to our Covenant with God. They understood that God had called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants (who included them and us today) to

1. Be a blessing
2. Follow God’s teachings and live worthy lives
3. Use their talents to create a society built on justice and righteousness.

These Jews believed that if they did these things, then in return, God would:

1. Protect them
2. Give them children
3. Make them a permanent people
4. Keep them safe in their ancient land, the land then known as Judaea

But there was another group of Jews at that time as well. Most of them were wealthy and thought it would be to their advantage if they were more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.

In order to accomplish this goal, this second group of Jews stopped practicing their religion and even mocked our sacred traditions. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city-state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business. So instead of studying Torah, observing Holy Days and Festivals, and living Jewish lives, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.

To make a very long story shorter there was so much tension between these two groups of Jews that soon they started fighting with each other. Then and only then–when he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea–did Antiochus send in his troops. He outlawed all Jewish practice and polluted the Temple with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.

The Maccabees fought against the Assyrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. They fought for the first time in history for the cause of religious liberty. And they won!

The lesson, though, is an important one for today. Judaism is a use it or lose it commodity. When we take our Judaism for granted, when we neglect to study and practice it, we endanger its survival. That is the real lesson of Chanukah. May we celebrate the Festival of Lights with joy and pride in our precious heritage!

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An Unforgettable Ten Weeks in Germany

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology


Vickie and I with Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah that she and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening built for us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

Vickie and I with Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah that she and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening built for us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

Vickie and I are still processing the ten amazing and productive weeks we spent in Germany. There were so many highlights.

We owe the trip to the ingenuity and hard work of Pastorin Ursula Sieg of Bad Segeberg. Somehow, after a few meetings with us, Ursula got the idea that we could be useful in a number of different ways in northern Germany this fall. She put together an amazing program and connected all the many dots to make it a reality. In addition, she and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening hosted us in their home and saw to all the logistics of the trip with warmth and love.

In her role as Director of School Church interaction in her region, Ursula put together a wonderful exhibit for public school children in Neumünster. Its title is, “Coming Home,” and it details the life and journey of Vickie’s 93-year-old still active artist mother, Stefanie Steinberg. She was born in Breslau, had to flee with her family to Spain from the Nazis when still a child. From there her journey took her to Switzerland, New York, Los Angeles and eventually to San Francisco. Ursula’s creativity and passion for interfaith understanding helped hundreds of students learn about Judaism (for some we were the first live Jews they had ever seen) and the Holocaust in an original and interesting way. We made about ten visits to the school and really felt close to the students and teachers who were involved.

An unexpected surprise came when the Probst of the Lutheran Church of the Bad Segeberg region, Dr. Daniel Havemann, with whom I developed a meaningful friendship, invited me (in his words) to become “the first rabbi to deliver the sermon at the worship service of their annual Synod.” It was an honor to do so. In all I spoke at ten different Lutheran Churches, sometimes on very problematic (for Jews) NT texts.

In one of the churches, the one time pastor was an ardent Nazi who was convicted of atrocities and sentenced to death (later commuted) at Nuremberg. My visit was part of the church’s ongoing atonement for Ernst Biberstein’s crimes. In the reception room of the church, where there were questions and answers following the service, there hangs a painting of an uprooted cross to symbolize a church gone astray. On my web site blog, you might be interested to read more about it in, “The Church of the Broken Cross.” It was a very special day.

On Kristallnacht, I was privileged to give three speeches (two in German thanks to Ursula’s translation and pronunciation drilling) in Leipzig, the city where my late father was born, grew up, and was arrested on that horrible night, November 9, 1938. My three Kristallnacht addresses in English are also on my web page blog.

We also visited Breslau, and there is interest in bringing the exhibit about Vickie’s mother there as well. It was a thrill for me to watch Vickie’s eye’s as she took in and processed the many sights form her mother’s home city. In Breslau we also received an offer from Jewish community leaders Jan Kirschenbaum and Aleksandra Wilczura to translate and publish What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives in Polish.

Speaking of the book, it was wonderful to visit the huge international book fair in Frankfurt. I was thrilled to see What’s in It for Me? among the thousands and thousands of volumes on display. It was also a unique opportunity to learn a bit from the inside about the publishing industry.

Another honor that I treasure is delivering the semester opening lecture based on the book at the University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology outside of Berlin. The reception my presentation received makes me confident that a similar talk would form the basis of a very meaningful evening or extended program for seminaries, synagogues, churches, mosques or other type of meeting or convention. I would also be excited to offer a mini-mester or similar course course on ”Genesis-Exodus Stories for Practical Preaching” to seminarians or clergy of all non-fundamentalist denominations.

Of course all of these activities were based around my role as visiting rabbi during the ten weeks, including the High Holy Day season, at the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel. There I preached, helped lead services, and led adult study sessions. Thanks to the kindness and flexibility of the community’s spiritual leader, Walter Joshua Pannebacker and the wonderful people who comprise the congregation, we felt so very comfortable and at home there.

All in all it was an amazing time. But now we are home, and I look forward to sharing the experiences I have had and the approach to Torah reflected in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives with many different groups.

The official launch for the book will be at Charter Oak Cultural Center) this coming Thursday, December 4, at 7:00 PM.

In the weeks that follow I will be speaking in several other places (listed on the calendar on my page, http://www.rabbifuchs.com). I hope those who attend these and future programs will gain meaningful perspectives for their lives from the presentations and discussions.

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To Seek the Blessing — Thanksgiving 5775 – 2014

Life can often be very difficult. In 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Governor Wilbur Cross of Connecticut appealed to the indomitable spirit of the people of our state when he proclaimed on Thanksgiving, “It has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator… for the blessing that have been our common lot … for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long search after truth; for liberty and for justice… that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our harvest Home.”

With these mighty words Governor Cross looked beyond the ravages of the Great Depression that affected every citizen and inspired the people of our state to seek and find the blessings in their lives.

It was the same quality exhibited by our patriarch Jacob who also overcame trial and tribulation to seek and find a blessing from God.

But, you might ask, “a blessing! What right and what hope should Jacob have had to seek a blessing from God?” Had he not taken advantage of his older brother Esau to extort the lion’s share of the family inheritance from him? Had he not stood before his blind father swearing he was Esau in order to steal his father’s blessing?
Yes, people often ask: “Why does an unsavory character like Jacob become Israel, the namesake of the Jewish people? Why do you take your name from a trickster and a thief?”

It is a good question, and it has good answers. First of all, Jacob paid and paid for his evil deeds. We would not be wrong if we counted the years after he left home as twenty years of hard time in the Laban Penitentiary in Haran. Laban tricked him time and again, and “often,” Jacob exclaimed, “scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night. Sleep fled from my eyes.”
Second, he honestly and eagerly sought Esau’s forgiveness, and he did not merely attempt to placate his brother with empty words. The size of the gift Jacob insisted Esau accept –and to his credit Esau was reluctant to do so– more than compensated his brother for the loss of the birthright inheritance.

And last and most important, Jacob is our role model and our namesake because despite every reason for doing so, he refused to give up hope. He stumbled and fell, as we all do. He paid for his misdeeds many times over. And when it seemed that all was lost, he wrestled with everything he had been and everything that he had done. He proclaimed to the Almighty in the midst of his struggle, “I will not let You go until You bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Though the encounter left him wounded, he wrenched genuine blessing from the depths of his anguish and found the ability to face the future with courage and hope. In that, I submit, he is a wonderful role model for all of us!

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Thomaskirche Kristallnacht Speech — English Version

Thomaskirche photo

It is a great honor for me to speak in this historic church to commemorate this horrific night 76 years ago. I am so very grateful to Pastorin Brita Taddiken of the Thomaskirche and to Pastor Timotheus Arndt for the invitation. I also want to express my eternal gratitude to Pastorin Ursula Sieg and Pastor Martin Pommerening for both welcoming Vickie and me into their home and for the endless hours each has put in to make our ten-week stay in Germany so productive and meaningful.

I first found out what happened on this night in 1938 when I began my graduate studies to become a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angels. At the opening convocation the then dean and later President of the College, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, of blessed memory, told of how as an eight-year old child in the town of Oberwesel, he watched his grandfather wade into the river Rhine to save charred scraps of Torah scrolls thrown by the Nazis from his burning synagogue.

As my train pulled into Leipzig’s huge station, I realized that my first glimpse of the city was probably my father’s last as he traveled on a different kind of train to Dachau after his arrest on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

I picked up a detailed city map at the information center to try to find the street and apartment where my father had grown up. I also sought the location of the city zoo.
Why the zoo? The eyewitness report on Kristallnacht by David H. Buffum, American consul in Leipzig, reveals: “Jewish dwellings were smashed into, and the contents looted… An eighteen year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken … three synagogues were fired simultaneously by incendiary bombs, and many Jews were rounded up and thrown into the stream that flows through the city zoo. SS men commanded horrified spectators to spit, jeer, and defile them with mud.”
When I arrived at the entrance to the zoo, it was 6:45 p.m. The gatekeeper said I was too late. “The zoo closes at seven.”
“It is all right,” I answered, as I handed over the entrance fee. “I only need to go in for a few minutes.” The gatekeeper protested, but I persisted until she finally let me pass.
In a few minutes I was standing before the stream. Tears came to my eyes as I heard myself asking out loud, “Is this where they took you, Papa? Did those bastards spit on you… Did they throw mud on you?” Then, as if in retaliation, I spit into the water from a bridge that straddles the stream.

The next morning I found the office of the Leipzig Jewish community. The elderly lady who answered the door explained that the head of the community was out but would be back later. I explained to her that my father grew up in Leipzig. She pulled down a dusty ledger and opened it to the F’s. I quickly found the family listing.
While we were talking, the leader of the community walked in. I explained who I was and why I was there. He was warm, friendly, and clearly pleased that I had come.

I asked him, “How many Jews live in Leipzig?”
“67”, he answered.
“And how many lived here,” I continued, “when the Jewish population was at its peak?”
“In 1935,” he responded, “18,000 Jews lived in Leipzig.”
“How many perished during the Holocaust?” I asked.
“14,000,” he replied.

The twelve-hour train ride to Amsterdam gave me plenty of time to digest my experiences in Leipzig. I thought, of course, of my father. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis took him to Dachau where they shaved his head, interrogated him, and abused him.
But Leo Fuchs was one of the lucky ones. Because he had relatives already in the United States, and because his visas were complete and in order, the American consulate secured his release after only a few days.

He never spoke of any of this to me, but I know the trauma’s effect never left him. In the spring of 1969 my father fell gravely ill. I flew home to New Jersey from my rabbinical studies in Los Angeles to be with him. I shall never forget my feelings of helplessness when I entered the hospital room, and my father in a semi-comatose state did not recognize me.
I stood there and shuddered as he began shouting in German –which he never spoke at home– that the guards should stop beating him! He had repressed those memories for more than 30 years.

And they were –by and large—good years! In this country my father found love and raised a family. But I –perhaps irrationally—blame the Nazis for shortening his life and depriving me of sharing my greatest joys with him: My ordination as a rabbi, my marriage to Vickie, and our children and our grandchildren.

Why do I say this? My father died at age 57. His older brothers who left Germany before Kristallnacht lived well into their 80’s.

Our children! They are our people’s answer to Hitler’s madness. For us Jews each new life represents a young sapling planted not only to bring joy to a family but also to revitalize a once verdant forest ravaged by fire, by smoke, and by gas.

The word, “genocide,” which we throw around so loosely today, came into our vocabulary so that we could attempt to define what Hitler tried to do: to extirpate the gene pool of our people.
And so we command ourselves: זכור Remember! But if we only remember to wallow in our sorrow, then we waste our time and our tears. We must remember what was so that we can make what will be better.

People ask me all the time. “How could God allow the Holocaust?” I answer that God gave human beings free will and placed us in charge of and responsible for this world. Without free will life would have no meaning. We human beings would be mere puppets on a string or actors following a script from which we could not deviate.

God yearns for us to create a world of justice and compassion, but God does not do it for us. When we fail, it is our failure, not God’s. When we fail, I believe God weeps with us and for us.

As I walked away from the stream that flows through the Leipzig zoo, I wandered past a den of timber wolves in a natural enclosure and beheld a truly wondrous site. A mother wolf stood stark still, while two suckling cubs nursed blissfully at her breasts.

At first, I thought it so incongruous to see such an exquisite glimpse of nature’s harmony in a place that represented to me only discord and destruction. Yet, that is the image that lingered in my mind during the long train ride back to Amsterdam. My mind’s eye kept returning from the vision of violence, hatred, and pain to the peaceful, pastoral scene of wolf cubs drawing sustenance and strength from their mother.

I know that the Nazis’ and neo-Nazi’s use the wolf as a symbol. That is a perversion! Wolves don’t kill because of ideology or cruelty—only to survive.

The Leipzig zoo will always represent for me the horrible evil of which humanity is capable. The wolves, though, will always represent harmony God wants us to create in this world.

On Yom Kippur we read in our synagogues one of the Torah’s most important texts: “See I have set before you life and goodness, death and evil.” (Dt. 30:15). The choice is ours, but God exhorts us: “Choose life that you and your offspring may live (Dt. 30:19).

No, the question is not where was God during the Holocaust. The question is where was humanity?
We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. We know too well that we can choose death, but God hopes our past will strengthen us as we face the future.

Yes, we can choose death, but God hopes
That the pain we relive this night will give us the courage
To clothe the naked,
Feed the hungry,
Teach the unlettered,
Foster understanding among all people,
And use the vast talents—with which God has blessed us—
To choose life, and
To forge a world of justice, caring, compassion and peace!

And then, at last, we will have the world of which the prophets dreamed when they said (Isaiah 11:9 and Micah 4:4)
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal One as the sea bed is covered by water … and all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid!
Amen

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