Another Eulogy for Miriam

When the Children of Israel complain—yet again—because they have no water, Moses loses it completely (Numbers 20). Many think he lost control because he was grieving the loss of his sister Miriam.

Miriam had saved his life when he was a baby (Exodus 2) and was his confidante throughout his life.

The Sages taught (based on Numbers 21.17-18) that because of Miriam, a well accompanied Israel that disappeared when Miriam died. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4 :12, section 3). Another Midrash suggests that Miriam’s well was one of ten sacred things  God created at twilight, just before the first Shabbat (Pirke Avot 5 :8). Rav Hiyya taught that Miriam’s well became an eternal memorial to her, embedded in the sea of Galilee and visible from the top of Mt. Carmel. (B. Shabbat 3a ; Yerushalmi, Kilaim 9 :4, p. 32C)

These midrashim represent the Sages’ desire to give Miriam the credit she deserves but which Scripture denies her.

We see the Bible’s discrimination most clearly in the story (Numbers 12) in which both Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite (dark-skinned) woman. Aaron gets off with a lecture but God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. Moses prays for his sister’s immediate recovery, but God does not relent, and she must remain outside the camp for seven days.

Today in some quarters of the Jewish world, Miriam rises to the status of Moses’ equal. Indeed, Dr. Ellen Frankel, former Editor in Chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America, wrote a commentary on the Torah entitled, The Five Books of Miriam.

Even if it is an over correction, it is a worthy attempt to mitigate the slight of Miriam and so many other biblical women.

 

Another comment on Parashat Hukat, (Numbers 19 :1-22 :1)

 

Miriam’s Enduring Influence

“And Miriam died … (Numbers 20:1)”

At the end of the same chapter Aaron also dies, but we read of his death in greater detail because the Torah’s final editors were descendants of Aaron’s hereditary priestly line.

I would argue, though, that Miriam’s legacy is more significant.

Our enduring memory of Aaron is as the one who weakly capitulated to the Israelites demand to make the golden calf. (Exodus, 32)

But our picture of Miriam is one of strength. The Torah identifies her as a prophet (Exodus 15:20), and she is the only female the Torah does not identify as someone’s wife or mother.

Rabbi Hama bar Hanina taught: “The righteous are more powerful after their death than during their life. (B. Hullin 7b)”

That teaching underlies a rabbinic tradition that the deaths of righteous individuals can effect atonement for an individual’s sins.

Anna Urowitz-Freudenstein notes (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 932) that this is a troubling idea. To clarify she cites Rabbi Menachem Ben Solomon Meiri (13th c.) who taught: The deaths of righteous individuals “often move the living toward introspection and private acknowledgment of wrongdoing, which then result in personal prayer for repentance.”

Surely Miriam is a person whose righteousness inspires us.

  • She saved Moses from the waters of the Nile.
  • She led the rejoicing of our people at the waters of the sea
  • She inspired God to have a well of water accompany the Israelites in the desert. (Rashi, comment on Numbers 20:2)

Yes, Aaron receives a more grandiose burial, but Miriam’s legacy moves us to ask ourselves: How can we be more like her? Is our goal honor and glory today? Or will we care more that people remember our righteousness in years to come

 

Comment on Torah portion Chukat, (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

A Test for the Nation

I do not like Hillary Clinton. I never have. Her Wall Street speeches, the texts of which she won’t reveal, top my list of things about her that I find distasteful. Her business dealings over the years have more than raised eyebrows.

But (and this but is huge)

Her debits pale compared to those of Donald Trump. For months we have seen this bombastic, self-centered misogynist pandering to the fears of America’s working class.

But his record speaks for itself. Time and time again he has exploited people—especially workers– ruthlessly for his own gain.

Sadly for me this election is a choice between the lesser of two evils.

That said it is a no brainer.

Ms Clinton’s background, and her experience as first lady, Senator, and Secretary of State have groomed her for the office she has hoped all her life to attain.

Yes, she is willing to say whatever her team thinks will gain her the most votes.

But compared to Mr. Trump, she is a combination of Mother Theresa and Margaret Thatcher. Compared to Mr. Trump, she is a saint.

The fraud that was Trump University and his ravaging of Atlantic City are prime examples of his venality. His anti-Semitic tinged smear of Hillary Clinton was unconscionable.

There have been more than 3500 lawsuits filed against Trump for unethical or fraudulent practices.

Then there is the case of Andrew Tesoro.

Mr. Tesoro is the architect hired to design the Club House of Trump’s Gold course in Westchester, NY.

When he submitted his bill Trump didn’t want to pay. In a meeting Trump claimed, as Emily Chan recently wrote: “I really don’t think I should pay any more because I spent too much on this building.” He offered to pay $25,000 instead of the $50,000 (or $140,000) that had been billed.

Trump’s attorney had some advice for Tesoro:

“Mr. Trump’s attorney said if I were to sue the Trump Organization, I would probably get that money,” Tesoro says. “But it was his job to make sure that it took me so long and so much money that I was probably wise to accept this very meager sum of money, which I did. I decided that I didn’t want to fight the fight.”

For a company like the Trump Organization, $140,000 is not a particularly large bill. But for Tesoro and his firm, that money—or lack thereof—mattered. “It almost put me out of business,” Tesoro says. “We had to max out the credit lines to keep the little ship afloat and pay the rent. And I made virtually zero money for a couple of years and lived on meager savings that were supposed to be for my son to go to school to keep from folding.”

No, I really don’t like Hillary Clinton although Donald Trump makes me wish I did.

This election is not about policies or programs. It is nothing less than a test of the character of our nation.

Will we choose a candidate with a wealth of relevant experience over a ruthless cheat and fraud who panders to the worst fears of the American electorate?

It is a simple pass/fail test of our character, and the future of the United States is at stake.

 

 

 

Questions With No Answer

 

On July 9 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Police officer Jeronimo Yaniz fired four shots that killed Philando Castile. Mr. Castile’s fiancé captured the incident on her cell phone.

Anyone who has seen the tape is an eyewitness that the shooting was unnecessary.

The officer pulled Castile’s car over for a broken tail light. He was reaching for his license and registration when Officer Yaniz killed him. The officer claimed he feared the gun for which Mr. Castile had a legal permit.

What happened in Falcon Heights, Minnesota in 2016 brought back to me the memory what happened in Belgium in 1914. My father was one and a half years old, and his father Hirsch Wolf Fuchs was 36. He was in Belgium when a German police officer stopped him and demanded identification. My grandfather reached into his pocket for his passport, but the policeman feared he was reaching for a gun and shot him dead.

As a result my father grew up without a father.

In both of these cases that occurred more than a century apart, hasty and unnecessary police action ripped families apart.

In the intervening years such tragedies have occurred countless times.

We have made so much progress in the technical and scientific arena in the last century. Our weapons, in particular, are so much more lethal than they were then.

Why then have we not made more progress in human understanding? Why do law officer so frequently overstep the bounds of reasonable force?

In particular, how can a policeman consider a man sitting in a car with his hands on the steering wheel a lethal threat to him when he is standing outside the car with his weapon drawn?

How is it possible that in so many cases where it is clear that officers overstepped, grand juries, and/or internal affairs investigators clear them of wrongdoing?

And why is it that police training does not take into account the impact of an officer whose finger was too quick to pull a trigger not just on an immediate family, but on generations to come as well.

 

 

 

Injustice Begets Injustice

There is no justification for the wanton assassination of five police officers in Dallas. None whatsoever!

While I write these words unequivocally, there must be understanding.

For two years now we have seen graphic images of black men shot or beaten by white police officers. The camera does not lie. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that officers are using excessive force. It does not take a genius to know that a person does not deserve to die because he had a broken taillight or was selling cigarettes or videotapes without authorization.

 The Talmud warns us: “Justice delayed is justice denied. (Pirke Avot 5:7)

In the recent cases there has been no justice! There has been no resolution for the families of loved ones killed for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rage has boiled over, and it struck—so very sadly—the innocent families of innocent police officers in Dallas. It is an unspeakable tragedy, and I hope the justice system will bring the perpetrators to justice quickly.

But it is a tragedy in response to horrific acts of malfeasance and abuse by police officers.

 Eyewitnesses videoed these actions, and all of us who do not close our eyes are also eyewitnesses to them. No region of our nation is without its horror story of police excessive use of force to recount.

 I cry for the families of the men in blue who died doing their sworn duty to protect and to serve. But their blood stains the hands of their fellow officers who shot without cause and snuffed out the lives of men who did not deserve to die.

When Dissent Causes Dissension

This weeks Torah portion, Korach, is an “Anti-Semite’s Delight. ”  They cite it as proof that the God of the Torah and the Hebrew Bible is a vengeful, angry Deity who opens the earth to swallow those who challenge the authority of Moses.

Was God really so angry?

Although it seems that the Torah portion says so, this story is really not about Moses. It is about the authority of Aaron and the hereditary priestly class who had taken control of life in ancient Hebrew society. It is they who wished to silence dissent.

By the time the Torah comes to us in its present form (in the middle of the fifth pre-Christian century) Moses is a revered historical figure, whose like we shall never see again. But he is just that, history.

The Aaronides (hereditary descendants of Aaron) were in charge then and what better way to put the divine imprimatur on their authority than the story of Korach and his followers. The Eternal One opens the earth to swallow them up as a message to any who would challenge priestly rule.

But how does this Torah portion speak to our lives today?

The story of Korach is a wonderful warning against self-aggrandizement. It reminds us to ask ourselves before we protest against those in authority. Do we really have a legitimate grievance or—after others have done all the work—do we just want to bring glory and attention to ourselves?

The God that I worship welcomes honest dissent and disagreement as we seek to make the world a better place! Peaceful dissent and the ring of honest disagreements are always in society’s best interest.

It is unfortunate that the ancient priests have given those with disdain for Judaism biblical warrant to assail the true nature of The Eternal One.

 

 

 

Moses Stays God’s Wrath … Again!

(Torah Commentary: Shelach Lecha)

In the second year of their journey from Egypt, God instructs Moses to send twelve scouts, one from each of the twelve Israelite tribes, to spy on the Promised Land (Numbers 13 ff). Moses requests that the spies bring back a detailed report of the land they plan to invade and conquer.

The spies return and tell Moses, essentially, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the land is wonderful. It is rich and fertile; it “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). To prove their point, the spies return with a cluster of grapes so rich and lush that it took two men to bear the pole to which the grapes were attached (Numbers 13:23). To this day, two men carrying a huge cluster of grapes is the official seal of Israel’s Ministry of tourism.

The bad news, according to ten of the twelve scouts, is that the land is unconquerable. The people are “giants” and we will seem to them “like grasshoppers” (Numbers 14:33).

Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, disagree.

They contend that God has promised us this land, and we need to have the faith and courage to do our part and carry out God’s plan.

Nevertheless, the naysayers rail against Moses for ‘rescuing’ them from Egypt only to die out in the wilderness. “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt. Let us head back to Egypt (Numbers 14:3-4).”

As when the Israelites made the golden calf, God is angry enough at the people’s lack of faith to destroy them. But once again, Moses stands between the people and God’s anger.

Using the same argument as he did when the Israelites made the golden calf (Exodus, 32:11-14), Moses, says: “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land…If then You slay this people to a man the nations who have heard Your fame will say, It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:13-16).

Moses’ appeal to God’s concern for the divine reputation is an example of biblical humor that misleads some into labeling God as a vain and self-absorbed deity. But God could not care less what either the Egyptians or other nations think. The intent is to demonstrate the sacred partnership between God and Moses.

Even though God promises to glorify Moses with a new and improved nation, Moses declines.

Those times when he restrains God’s wrath are Moses’ finest hours.

We refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our rabbi. When our congregants are recalcitrant and seem unappreciative of our efforts, we can imagine how attractive an offer from the Eternal One to replace them with a new and more receptive community would be.

But Moses will not have it. This is Your people, Moses insists, whom You freed from the land of Egypt. You cannot destroy them.

The crucial message of this incident⎯as with the golden calf–is that Moses and God are partners. When God seemed ready to give up on the people, Moses offered encouragement, perspective and hope. When Moses runs out of faith as he did in last week’s Torah portion, God strengthens him.

I hope that it is that way with us. When life is most difficult, I hope we hear a voice within⎯I call it God⎯that urges us to continue. It is a voice imploring us to believe in ourselves and to believe that our lives have purpose.

Like our Eternal Covenant I believe the relationship is reciprocal.

Through our god-like acts of compassion and sharing, we inspire God’s compassion just as Moses had done.

 

(Follow me on Twitter: @rabbifuchs6 and please visit my web page, http://www.rabbifuchs.com)

 

Only God Can Make A Tree

 

FullSizeRender

The view from the back of our home

 

Only God can make a tree …” These words conclude Joyce Kilmer’s iconic poem that was a staple of my fifth grade English studies.

Kilmer’s simple lyric has stayed with me over the years as a vital reference point for the existence of God.

The world has gotten so much more sophisticated since I was in the fifth grade sixty years ago. The advances in science, technology, and medicine are mind-blowing.

With that knowledge has come an increased hubris about humanity’s power. Fewer and fewer Americans go regularly to houses of worship to acknowledge and give thanks to the Eternal One. When they do they look less for serious opportunities to pray and more for cute programs that will keep their children entertained.

Our quantum leaps in human knowledge and understanding blind so many to the reality that the gap between our attainable knowledge and the mysteries of the universe will always be unfathomable. Atheists insist on divorcing God from these mysteries, and that is their right.

Others are arrogant enough to say that if they can’t understand the morality of disease or senseless violence, then there must not be a God.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who ascribe every thing that happens to God and see themselves only as puppets doing what they perceive God has told or wants them to do. The dangers of such fanatical fundamentalist belief are too apparent in our world today to require elaboration.

Why cannot more human beings see a sane middle path?

Those who walk that path see creation as the purposeful initiative of a good, caring God who wants us human beings to create a just, caring and compassionate society.

Whether we like it or not (and some do not) we humans are in charge of and responsible for the earth.

We have power far beyond that of any animal to think, communicate and create. We can use that power for good or for ill. Wise religious teachings should inspire us to take good care of this earth and of each other.

  • I accept and admire those who work conscientiously toward these ends without acknowledging God’s role.
  • I judge people more by their actions than their beliefs.
  • I acknowledge that the day may yet come when we human beings can indeed make trees.

Some would say that day is already here. But will we make them from nothing, ex nihilo, as the official phrase puts it? I doubt it.

Even if that happened I would still believe. Why?

As I look behind our home and see the beautiful green foliage waving in the breeze my mind goes back to what I learned by rote in the fifth grade. Now those words form a conclusion I have reached after another sixty years of questioning and struggling:

Only God can make a tree!FullSizeRender

Trees

by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

(With thanks to  Sarah F. Baldwin, my fifth grade teacher: the toughest, most ornery teacher I ever had. Your lessons endure!)

The Lost Passover

(with gratitude to the Eternal One as this is the first new essay I have written since mid April)

This year was the first time in my life I did not attend a Passover Seder. Instead Erev Pesach found me in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Vickie (my wife) was in San Francisco tending to her ninety-four-year old mother who was ailing. I planned to drive to New Jersey (From Connecticut where we live) to join the family Seder, but it didn’t turn out that way.

I woke up that Friday morning with a severe pain in my leg. I was not overly concerned when I called Vickie in California and told her. But she was.

She called our son Ben and asked him to come right over. When he got to our home, he immediately decided to call 911.

“No, I said. “Don’t call 911. What will the neighbors think if an ambulance comes here? It will be embarrassing.”

The next thing I remember was riding in an ambulance on my way to the hospital.

There they told me that my blood pressure had fallen dangerously low. They drew blood for tests and began to pump me full of intravenous fluids.

Early the next morning our family physician called Vickie to tell her, “You had better come home today.”

My older son, who lives in San Francisco came with her. They managed to get a flight and arrived at the hospital late that evening.

Events after that are a blur.

I remember an infectious disease doctor asking me questions that seemed ridiculous. “What’s your name?” “Do you know where you are?” “Do you know with whom you are speaking”’ When I looked at her incredulously, she asked, “Do you know why I am asking you these questions?

“No.”

“Because,” she answered, “the profile on this chart shows a much sicker person then you are presenting to me in person.”

That was good news. The bad news was that I had a life-threatening strep infection centered in my left hip. “As soon as your blood pressure is high enough,” she continued,” they will operate to flush and drain the area.” They did two days later, and I have a long scar caused by nineteen stainless steel staples to show for it on the back of my thigh.

The other procedures I remember were a special kind of echocardiogram to be sure that neither my artificial aortic valve nor my pacemaker had been infected. They were not. Then they inserted a Peripheral Inserted Central Catheter (PICC) so that I could receive twice daily infusions of intravenous antibiotics. That process continued for six weeks.

On the seventh day of Passover I was released for rehab to the Hebrew Home and Hospital. I had visited the place dozens of times, but I never imagined I would one day be a patient there.

The physical therapy at the Hebrew Home was excellent, but it was a tough week. The best part of it was when my son and daughter-in-law smuggled a mushroom pizza into my room along with Flora, my not quite two-year-old granddaughter to mark the end of Passover.

The days since have been marked by thrice weekly visits to physical therapy and countless MD visits to the surgeon, primary care physician, and the infectious disease doctor.

May was supposed to be a big month for me.

I had several speaking engagements on my calendar, and joyous celebrations of a Bat Mitzvah in Cleveland and a graduation in Buffalo. But my doctor made clear: “You aren’t doing anything at all in May but rest and rehab”. And so it was.

This episode confronts me with lessons I have taught dozens of times over the years:

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. The world did not end because I had to cancel appearances in Rochester, NY, Springfield, NJ and Manchester, Hartford and Deep River, CT.
  • Make each day count. We never know what tomorrow will bring.

Now we are in the middle of June, and though I have a ways to go, I am so much better. My caregivers all caution me not to rush things and to give my body all the rest it needs to heal completely.

I have followed their advice, but this past Shabbat Eve—with their approval–I took a huge step by speaking in public for the first time.

Although I was completely wiped out the next day, I was overjoyed. For the first time in more than six weeks I left home other than to go to a doctor, physical therapy, or the gym for my prescribed exercises.

I pray my recovery continues apace. In the next few days Vickie’s mother turns ninety-five and Flora will be two. I certainly don’t want to miss those wonderful occasions, and I look forward to celebrating Passover next year.

What Happened at Sinai?

The Festival of Shavuot begins tomorrow evening, June 11.

Shavuot commemorates the pivotal moment when God revealed Torah on Mount Sinai.

So unique in history did the Sages of our people envision the event at Sinai that they imagined the whole world coming to a complete silent standstill. In the words of the Midrash:

When God gave the Torah, no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox grunted…the sea did not roar … the whole world hushed in breathless silence, and the Divine voice went forth proclaiming (Exodus 20:2): “I am the Lord your God; who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Shemot Rabbah 29:9)

What makes this moment so unique? At Sinai the Covenant God made first with Abraham alone became the privilege and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish people, past, present and future.

What actually took place at Sinai?

It should surprise no one that our Sages fertile minds produced a number differing Midrashim. Here are four:

In one God offers Torah to all the nations of the world. But when they hear what it says –Don’t cheat, don’t steal, treat the stranger the widow, the orphan and the poor with special dignity and respect – they all reject it out of hand. (See Sefer Ha-Agadah (Bialik and Rovenitzky, editors, vol. 1, p. 59).

Another Midrash, that I like to call, “The Godfather Midrash,” envisions God lifting Mount Sinai and hold it over the heads of the assembled Children of Israel. Then God says, “Either you accept and pledge to observe my Torah or I shall drop the mountain on top of you.” (B. Shabbat 88A and B. Avodah Zarah 2B)

This Midrash teaches us the vital lesson that our only purpose as a people is to be teachers and examples of the ideals of Torah to the world.

Indeed by adherence to these ideals we become in the words of the Prophet Isaiah; “A light to the nations,” (Isaiah 49:6) a worthy example for all. If we are not willing to accept the responsibility of adhering to the Torah’s ideals, there is no good reason for us to continue to exist.

A third Midrash that states that unless Israel agrees to embrace the Torah and its ideals, God would break the promise made after the flood never to destroy the world again (B. Shabbat 88A).

A fourth Midrash stresses the importance of passing the ideal of Torah to future generations. In this Midrash God demands that we demonstrate that we are worthy to receive it? When God asks us to offer guarantors of our worthiness, we offer the deeds of our patriarchs and our prophets but God finds neither of these acceptable.

Only when we pledge the loyalty of our children to God’s teachings does God reveal the Torah to our people. (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah, Chapter 1, Section 4, Midrash 1)

The rabbinic method of interpretation encouraged creative thought. There was rarely only one acceptable point of view on any question. Here I have shared four different rabbinic versions of how the greatest moment in our religious history came to be.  There are others. Each one, though, stresses our privilege and responsibility to study Torah and pass its teachings on to the next generation.