Shavuot: A Wonderful Example of Reform Jewish Thinking!

One of the great examples of Reform Jewish thinking, some 2000 years before there was anything called Reform Judaism, regards the Festival of Shavuot.

In the Torah, Shavuot Is strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of both the first summer fruits and the barley harvest (Leviticus 23:15-22). Our ingenious Rabbinic Sages reformed (and I use that word purposely) the festival into the anniversary of our biblical ancestors received the Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot be sure of exactly how it happened but I imagine a scenario much like this:

A group of concerned rabbis were discussing the state of Jewish life. One Sage mused, “You know, Shavuot just doesn’t attract the great crowds to celebrate in Jerusalem that it once did.”

A second Rabbi answered: “That’s true, but it’s understandable. Times have changed!”

A third participant: “You are absolutely right! When we were primarily an agrarian society, first fruits and the barley harvest were compelling reasons to celebrate. Now, that we have become more urban, those occasions don’t mean as much to many people.”

First Sage: “What can we do?”

A fourth participant spoke up: “I’ve got it! If you look at the Torah, Shavuot comes 50 days after the first day of Pesach. That’s just about the same amount of time that it took our ancestors to travel to Mount Sinai after they left Egypt! Even though the Torah does not make the connection explicitly we can make the connection. From now on we can celebrate Shavuot—in addition to its biblical significance–as a joyous celebration of when we received Torah at Mount Sinai”.

A fifth Sage asks: “Can we do that?”

The fourth responds: “Not only can we, we must!! If we want our precious Jewish heritage to endure, we must be skilled interpreters of biblical texts so that they speak meaningfully to the present and future realities of our people.”

In this way, I can easily imagine, the rabbis of the Talmudic period took a fading agricultural festival and gave it a historical underpinning and new life for future generations. In similar fashion, our early Reform leaders made Shavuot the time when ninth, tenth, or—in some communities–twelfth grade students celebrate Confirmation.

The example of what our ancient Sages did with Shavuot must continue to inspire our thinking as Reform Jews today. If we want our precious heritage to remain vibrant and relevant, we must always be eager to embrace opportunities to make our traditions and celebrations speak more meaningfully to our children and grandchildren!

When we do, let us rejoice that the process of continually “reforming” Judaism is wholly consistent–and not at odds–with the process by which our Rabbinic Sages enabled Judaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.

Meine erste Hebräisch Lehrerin Kurzkommentar zu Bemidbar (Nummeri 1-3)

In der Paraschat Bemidbar (Nummeri 3,1-7) instruiert Gott die Leviten auf unseres Volkes Reise in das Verheißene Land sorgfältigst für die Heiligen Behältnisse unserer alten Stiftshütte zu sorgen. Heute sind die Kinder, die wir unterrichten, diese Heilige Behälter und wie wir sie unterrichten, kann ihr Leben verändern.

Am ersten Tag des Kurses fragte meine erste Hebräischlehrerin Schulamit Steinlight, die 2010 im Alter von 95 Jahren starb, nach unseren hebräischen Namen. Ich hatte keinen blassen Schimmer. “Fragt eure Eltern”, antwortete Mrs. Steinlight, “und wenn sie es nicht wissen, dann fragt eure Großeltern.”

Als ich fragte, sagten mir meine Eltern mein hebräischer Name sei “Siskin Labe”. Mrs. Steinlight, die einige Zeit in Israel gelebt hatte, erklärte, wobei eine kleine Falte auf ihrer Nase erschien: “Das ist Jiddisch! Du brauchst einen hebräischen Namen. Er soll אריה sein. Und אריה (Aryeh) war’s von dem Tag an bis heute.

Mrs. Steinlight gab mir viel mehr als nur meinen hebräischen Namen.

Wir waren ein Haufen Rowdies. Aber Mrs. Steinlight geriet nie aus der Fassung und wurde nie laut.     Trotzdem machte sie klar, dass sie zum Unterrichten da war und wir zum Lernen. Aber ich hatte kein Interesse.

Aber Mrs. Steinlight gab mir das Gefühl geliebt zu sein.

Letztlich wurden Hebräisch und jüdische Studien wichtig für mich und mir wurde klar, dass Mrs. Steinlight ein Grund dafür war.

Ein paar Jahre bevor sie starb, suchte ich sie und rief sie an, um ihr zu erzählen, was sie mir bedeutete. Obwohl sie vor Freude fast weinte, spürte ich, dass sie sich nicht an mich erinnerte. Das macht aber nichts!

Ich werde nie vergessen, dass sie mich behandelte wie einen der Heiligen Behälter, der ihr anvertraut war. Und ich war so glücklich, dass ich es ihr hatte sagen könnte.

Translation: Pastor Ursula Sieg 

My First Hebrew Teacher

Quick Comment: Bemidbar (Numbers 1-3)

 In parashat Bemidbar (Numbers 3:1-7) God instructed the Levites to care scrupulously for the sacred vessels of our ancient tabernacle in our people’s journey to the Promised Land. Today, our sacred vessels are the children we teach, and how we do it can change their lives.

On the first day of class Shulamit Steinlight, my first Hebrew teacher, who died in 2010 at the age of 95, asked us our Hebrew names. I had no clue.

“Ask your parents,” Mrs. Steinlight responded. “And if they don’t know, ask your grandparents, and tell me next class.”

When I asked, my parents informed me that my Hebrew Name was “Siskin Labe.”

Mrs. Steinlight, who had lived for some time in Israel, exclaimed with a slight wrinkling of her nose, “That’s Yiddish!” You need a Hebrew name. It will be אריה . And אריה (Aryeh) it has been from that day to this.

Mrs. Steinlight gave me much more than my Hebrew name.

We were a rowdy bunch, but Mrs. Steinlight never lost her temper and never raised her voice. She made it clear, though, that she was there to teach, and we were there to learn. But I was not interested.

Mrs. Steinlight made me feel loved anyway.

Eventually, Hebrew and Jewish learning became vital to me, and I realize that Mrs. Steinlight was one of the reasons.

A couple of years before she died I located her and called her on the phone to tell her what she meant to me. Although she was thrilled almost to tears by my call, I sensed that she did not remember me. But no matter! I will always remember that she treated me like a sacred vessel entrusted to her care. And I am so glad I could tell her.

Israel Should Not Tolerate Racist Demonstrations by Jews!

This coming Shabbat is Yom Yerushalayim, “Jerusalem Day.” It should be a day to celebrate  with joy the reunification of Jerusalem. But it should also be a day when Jews show sensitivity to Jerusalem’s Arab population.

From 1948 to 1967 Jews could not pray at our holiest site, the Western Wall of our ancient Temple. Since 1967 Jerusalem has been a place where the holy sites of all religious faiths are open to worshippers of those faiths.

Yom Yerushalayim should be an occasion to show the world that Jerusalem is a city where different nationalities live and all are welcome. It should be a city that respects and affirms diverse religious expressions. It should be a city that is in the words of the prophet “a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6)!”

In recent years, to my sadness, Yom Yerushalayim has been marred by racist Jews. (Even to say those two words together makes my heart blanch.) Yes, a small minority of Jews actually march en masse through Arab neighborhoods shouting “Death to the Arabs,” and “the Mosque will burn!”

Israel should have zero tolerance for such racist activity.

The government should issue strong warnings against them, and those who engage in this kind of incitement should face severe punishment. Israel—and Jerusalem in particular—must hold itself to the highest standard of human behavior.

In the hope of preventing these horrible actions this year I have written to Mr. Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem. Now Mr. Barkat certainly reads English, but I wanted to express myself as a lover of Israel in Hebrew. My letter in translation follows.

To Mayor Barkat, Shalom!

This coming Shabbat we shall celebrate Yom Yerushalyim. Jerusalem is our capitol. But it is also the city where many Palestinians and other Arabs also live. I request of you to do all in your power to prevent racist demonstrations against Arabs. Such demonstrations bring disgrace upon Israel in the eyes of the world.

                    With great respect,

                     Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Even though I am a firm believer in “free speech” I believe Israel should prevent these demonstrations. Why? They are a form of overt “hate speech.” These demonstrations are a direct incitement to violence. They should have no place in Israel.

I hope you will join me as I, “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” and that you will add your voice in appealing to the city’s mayor to insure that the “City of Peace” lives up to its name.

I urge all of you who love and care about Israel to write as well.  Mayor Barkat’s email is nir@jerusalem.muni.il.

 

For My German Readers: Freiheit – ein schwer zu erreichendes Ziel

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Kurzkommentar zum Tora-Abschnitt Behar (Levitikus 25, 1 . 26.2)

Wie verrückt suchte ich im Internet die Worte von Yitzhak Rabin, eingemeißelt in meine Erinnerung, aber offensichtlich vergessen von Google ob seinen bedeutenderen Reden.

Es war im Juli 1974. Rabin sprach vor dem Kongress und beschrieb wortreich, wie er als Kind die Worte auf der Liberty Bell in ihrem Hebräischen Wortlaut lernte: “U `kratem dror ba-aretz L`chol yoshveha – Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants (Levitikus 25,10)   – Verkündet Freiheit allen Bewohnern des Landes!”

Rabin zeigte auf, dass diese zentrale Grundlage der Demokratien

von Amerika und Israel aus der Tora-Lesung dieser Woche stammt.

Leicht gesagt, aber schwer umzusetzen

Wie jüngste Ereignisse von Ferguson bis Baltimore in den USA und Demonstrationen in Tel Aviv und Jerusalem in Israel belegen, bleiben sowohl die 238 Jahre alte USA wie das 67 Jahre alte Israel hinter diesem Ziel zurück. Obwohl keines der beiden Länder seine hehren Ziele erreicht hat, versäumt keines, seine Ideale hoch zu halten. Es ist leicht von einer gerechten, fürsorglichen und mitfühlenden Gesellschaft zu reden, aber schwer sie zu erreichen. Wie leicht kann man Verzweiflung und Trauer nachgeben, wenn wir uns in der Welt umsehen. Viele tun es. Aber ist es nicht in jedem Fall besser, etwas zu tun, wie wenig auch immer, um die Welt auf den Tag zu zubewegen, an dem es heißen wird: “Sie sollen nicht verletzten noch zerstören auf meinem Heiligen Berg” (Jesaija 11,9).

Wir alle müssen tun, was wir können

Wir mögen nicht Krebskranke heilen, aber wir können Hungernden zu essen geben. Wir werden nicht den Weltfrieden herstellen, aber wir können einem Kind das Lesen beibringen. Möglichkeiten gibt es zuhauf. Wenn wir die Kerzen anzünden um den Schabbat des Friedens und der Freude in unser Leben einzuladen, lasst uns darüber nachdenken, wie wir eine Kerze anzünden können, die Frieden und Freude in das Leben anderer bringt.

Translation: Pastor Ursula Sieg

Liberty for all: An Elusive Goal  Quick Comment: Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

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In vain I searched the  Internet for the words from Yitzhak Rabin seared into my memory but apparently forgotten by Google among his more famous speeches.

It was in July of 1974 when during his first term as Prime Minister Rabin addressed a joint session of congress and eloquently described learning the words on the Liberty Bell in their original Hebrew as a small child: “U’kratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveha – Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants (Leviticus 25: 10).”

Rabin pointed out that this cardinal foundation of both American and Israeli democracy comes form this week’s Torah portion.

 As recent events from Ferguson to Baltimore in the USA and the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel attest, the United States at age 238 and Israel at age 67 both fall far short of that biblical goal.

Though neither country has yet achieved its lofty ideals, neither fails to hold its ideals aloft.

A just, caring and compassionate society is easy to articulate but difficult to achieve.

It is easy to give in to despair and anguish when we look at the world around us. Many do.

But isn’t it a better choice for each of us to do something—however small–to move the world closer to the day when, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain (Isaiah 11:9).”

We must do what we can

We may not cure cancer but we can give food to the hungry. We may not make peace in the world but we help a child learn to read. Possibilities abound.

As we light the candles to welcome a Shabbat of peace and joy into our lives, let us think of how we might light a candle to bring peace and joy into the lives of others.

 

 

For my German Readers: Warum Wurde Rösch Hashanah So Bedeutend?

Kurz-Kommentar zum Tora-Abschnitt Emor (Levitikus 21-24)

Wo in der Tora Heilige Tage und Feste aufgeführt sind (Levitikus 23), gibt es nur zwei Sätze zu Rosch Hashanah. Warum bekommt ein solch wichtiger Anlass im jüdischen Leben so wenig Raum?

Es ist anzunehmen, dass zu Zeiten, als man jeden Buchstaben in Stein meißelte oder auf Pergament schrieb, der Platz, den ein Thema bekam, ein Hinweis auf seine Bedeutung war. Offensichtlich wurde also Rosch Hashanah wenig beachtet.

Aber heute? Wow! Architekten müssen die Synagogen so bauen, dass sie für die Menschenmassen an Rosch Hashanah (und Jom Kippur) vergrößert werden können.

Über das Jahr tun wir Rabbiner alles, die Leute in die Synagoge zu locken. Aber an Rosch Hashanah drucken viele Gemeinden Eintrittskarten, um Nicht-Mitglieder raus zu halten.

Zwei Historische Ereignisse

Unsere Liturgie gibt Hinweise, warum Rosch Hashanah so wichtig wurde. Unser tägliches Gebet und der Schabbat Gottesdienst erwähnen nur zwei historische Ereignisse: Die Erschaffung der Welt und der Auszug aus Ägypten Der Kiddusch (der Schabbat-Segen über dem Wein) erwähnt auch nur die Schöpfung und den Exodus.

Nun feiert das Pessach-Fest, an dem mehr Juden teilnehmen als an jedem andern Fest durch das Jahr, ausführlich den Exodus. Wir brauchten aber auch eine Gelegenheit, die Ideale der großartigen Geschichte der Schöpfung zu feiern. Die Geschichte erzählt uns nichts über das “Wie” der Schöpfung, aber viel über das “Warum”.

Gott schuf die Welt mit Absicht und Sinn und bestimmt uns Menschen dazu für die Welt verantwortlich zu sein. Gott gab uns beeindruckende Macht. Wir sind die einzigen Geschöpfe, die Gehirnoperationen durchführen können, aber auch die einzigen, die Bomben bauen können und Kugeln herstellen, um zu verletzten und zu töten.

Unsere Weisen verstanden sehr genau, dass wir ein Fest brauchen, das uns daran erinnert unsere

Macht vorsichtig zu gebrauchten. Darum wurde Rosch Hashanah so bedeutend, wie es jetzt ist.

Translation: Pastor Ursula Sieg

Why Did Rosh Hashanah Become So Important?

Quick Comment: Parashat Emor, (Leviticus 21-24)

In the Torah where Holy days and festivals are listed (Leviticus 23), there are only two sentences about Rosh Hashanah. Why does such an important occasion in Jewish life get so little space?

It is fair to assume that when writing involved engraving words into stone or writing each letter on parchment that the amount of space a subject received was indicative of its importance. Clearly, Rosh Hashanah was once a minor observance.

But now, Wow! Architects designed many of our sanctuaries to expand to provide more space for the Rosh Hashanah (and, Yom Kippur) crowds.

We rabbis do everything we can to lure people in during the year. But on Rosh Hashanah many communities print tickets to keep non-members out.

Two Historical Events

Our liturgy indicates why Rosh Hashanah has become so important. Our daily and Shabbat services mention only two historical events: the creation of the world and the Exodus from Egypt. Kiddush (Shabbat blessing over wine) also only mentions the creation and the Exodus.

Now Passover in which more Jews participate than any other event during the year grandly celebrates the Exodus.

But we also needed a big occasion to celebrate the ideals taught in Genesis’ magnificent Story of Creation.

The story tells us nothing scientific about HOW the world was created but so much about WHY!

God created the world with purpose and meaning and set us human beings to be in charge of and responsible for the world.

God gave us awesome power. We are the only creatures who can do brain surgery, but we are the only ones who make bombs and bullets to kill and maim.

Our Sages wisely perceived that we needed an event to remind us to use our power prudently. That is why Rosh Hashanah became the important festival that it is!

An Older White Man’s Message to Angry Young Blacks in Baltimore

This message may mean nothing to you. But long ago my little league coach said it is better to swing and miss than take a called third strike.

As I studied to become a rabbi, I was also taught: One who saves a single life is regarded as though he or she had saved the whole world.

So if just one of you resonates to these words, I will be happy. If not then at least I took my cut.

The circumstances under which many of you have grown up are beyond awful! The instances of police use of excessive force against black males in 2015 alone are ample evidence that the system is in urgent need of fixing. It is awful! I share your frustration and your anger.

But I know that we have made some progress.

 Freddie Gray’s assailants have been indicted! When I was growing up there were no black mayors or black police commissioners in any large cities, let alone a Black President of the United States.

Yes, there has been progress, but we still have such a long way to go!

As we move forward, each of you has a choice. You can be part of the ongoing problem. Or you can be part of the solution. Your call!

Your lives matter!

Each of you has talents, abilities and energy! You must choose how to use them.

You have a choice!

You can learn as much as you can, develop the talent that God has given you—and find ways to use that talent to make a better world. Or you can succumb to the despair, poverty, hopelessness, crime and anger that surround you.

Think about it!

What if all the energy and time that went into looting and destroying in recent days had gone into clearing a vacant lot, planting trees and flowers and creating a park?

Yes, we make choices and must live with them, but here’s the thing: The choices you made in the past don’t have to determine the choices you make in the future. If you have done good, you can choose to continue to do so. If you’ve done bad you can do better.

God does not make that choice for you, but I believe God is intensely interested in the choices you make!

 I believe that the Bible in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 30, verse 15-19) is speaking to each and every one of us: “See I have set before you this day life and goodness, death and evil … Therefore choose LIFE, that you and those who come after you may live.”

Yes, there is so much negative stuff in your lives that you did not create and that you cannot control. My heart weeps at the thought. But you have to decide whether you will use those horrible realities as an excuse to make them worse or as a spur to make them better.

I believe with all my heart that God cares what you do with the gifts you have been given. Life and death, good and evil are before you! The choice is yours!

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT