NO! God Did Not Say, “He shall rule over you,” but, “He shall be like you!”

breslau-synagogue(Breslau, Erev Shabbat Bereshit, 5777)

As I stood before the men and women—seated separately—in Wroclaw’s (formerly Breslau)’s Orthodox synagogue, I took a deep breath and began my D’var Torah for Kabbalat Shabbat Bereshit.

After sharing how much it meant to me to speak in the city from which my wife Vickie’s mother and family fled the Nazis in 1936, I said:

“This Shabbat we begin our Torah once again and read how God—from the beginning of time–created men and women to be equal.

Our Sages teach that the Eternal One created the man’s “ fitting partner” (Genesis 2:18) by creating her not from his head to be above him, not from his feet to be beneath him but from his side to be his equal and from near his heart to be loved.”

After Eve courageously opted for a life of purpose and meaning by eating (Genesis 3:6) the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, God announced that the future would be different because they were now aware of what their sexual organs could do. The Eternal One said:

“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall be like you. (Genesis 3:16)”

NO! Not “He shall rule over you,” but, “He shall be like you!”

The Torah does not lie, and everyone knows that a man’s desire for his wife is as least as strong as hers for him.

When the rabbis want to compare things that are alike they say:

משל (mashal) A comparison: What is the matter like?

So here the root משל does not need to connote rule or dominance. It connotes a similarity a comparison.

It connotes equality.

God’s desire from the time of creation was for men and women to be equal.”

 

I first used this translation in my D.Min dissertation at Vanderbilt in 1992. Before submitting it I discussed it with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, of blessed memory. When he gave it his enthusiastic endorsement, I ran with it and have ever since. It appears again in print in my new book ToraHighlights (pp. 12, 13)

When I look at our world, I believe that this translation is not just a homiletical twist. Rather I believe that God commanded us at the moment of creation—and continues to command us today— to view the relationship between men and women as one of equal partners working together to make our world a better place than it is now.

 

 

 

 

A Long Deferred Visit: AUSCHWITZ

arbeit-macht-frei

It should always be cold, it seems to me, at Auschwitz, and the sky should always be a dreary gray.

Unless it is a very hot day, I am always cold. It has been that way it, it seems to me, since the frigid night in February when my Hamilton College Hockey team played MIT in Boston outdoors.

I was not one of the team’s better players (an understatement), and I spent much of the game on the bench. Since then, I have been cold.

And so, as much as any of the horrible sufferings people endured or succumbed to at Auschwitz, I think of the cold.

The thin pieces of rag that inmates wore, and their often bare feet provided no shield at all against the brutal Polish winter.

It was not cold by normal standards when we visited Auschwitz. But I vowed not to be cold. I wore long johns, knit cap, gloves and four layers of clothing on my upper body.

We came first to the death camp of Birkenau. The stark barrenness and sense that we were in the middle of nowhere combined with the knowledge of what happened there evoked a strong emotional response.

And despite how warmly I dressed and the comparatively mild temperature, I was cold.

Then we made our way to “the main Auschwitz.” Tour buses and crowds greeted us. It seemed we were visiting just another tourist attraction.

The only thing there that I needed to see with my own eyes—given how many other Holocaust museums and memorials I have visited—was the infamous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign over the main gate.

It was smaller than I imagined.

But then our friend, Pastor Martin Pommerening pointed out something I had not known.

The B in ‘ARBEIT’ was upside down.

Instead of the bottom being bigger than the top, the top was bigger than the bottom. I had never noticed.

It was a subtle protest by the workers forced to make the sign against its message. They were telling the world that the sign above the Gate of Auschwitz was a lie.

Then Martin asked if the second letter, the “Bet” ב has any special significance in Judaism.

The rabbis make much, I answered, of the fact that the first word of the Torah, ”Bereshit” (In the beginning) begins with “Bet.” “Bet” is the first letter of the Hebrew word for B’racha ”which means “blessing,” the blessing God charged Abraham and all of us (Genesis 12:2) to make of our lives.

The rabbis also noted that God began Torah with the letter “Bet” because the Bet is closed beneath it, behind it and above it. That teaches that what happens when we are placed beneath the ground, what happened before creation, and so much about God above are beyond our ability to know.

But, the Sages, continued, the Bet is open in front.

That Midrash symbolizes for me the main message I have tried to proclaim in speaking these past three years in synagogues, schools, and churches in Germany:

“We cannot change the past, but the future is ours to shape.”

I could not leave Auschwitz soon enough, and as we drove away the sun peeked through the clouds as we contemplated the future we wish to shape.

 

The Symbol Story of the Human Soul!

 

No story in literature teaches us more about what God is—and what God is not—than Cain and Abel.

Two brothers make offerings to the Lord: God accepts Abel’s and rejects Cain’s! Why? Jewish tradition has been uncomfortable with the idea that the Eternal One would act capriciously, so the consensus of Midrashic thought is that Cain brought an ordinary offering or, perhaps, an insultingly inferior one. Abel, on the other hand, brought the best offering he could.
But I do not think that this is what the text is saying!

The crucial verse (as I translate it) reads, “In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, and Abel also brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” (Genesis 4:3). In other words, each one brought the best he could. Furthermore, the initiative to make an offering in the first place came from Cain, not Abel.

But if we read the text that way, we grapple with a difficult question: Why does God reject Cain’s offering? It does not seem fair. And isn’t God all about fairness?

The answer is simple: We do not know. God is a mystery, and life is not always fair. God does not answer to us; we answer to God. We lose sight of this at our peril.

Moreover, the Torah does not always tell us the way things should be; sometimes it underscores the way things are. In daily life, we all make offerings—even our very best offerings—that those in a position of power reject as God rejected Cain’s.

  • Did you ever study for days for a test in school and got a poorer grad than someone who did not study nearly so hard and got an A?
  • Did you ever practice and practice and practice to make a team and wind up on the far end of the bench while someone who did not practice nearly as long or as hard as you became a starter or even a star?
  • Have you ever applied to a college or university and got a thin envelope with a letter thanking you for your interest but saying that due to the high number of qualified applicants, the school is unable to accept you?
  • Have you ever primed yourself for a certain job or a promotion that went to someone who you knew in your heart was less qualified than you were?
  • Have you ever offered your love to one who did not feel the same about you?

Yes, we all have been in Cain’s shoes each time we have felt the sting—and the accompanying anger and jealousy—of rejection.

What happens in the story teaches us so much. God takes time out of (what we presume is) a busy divine schedule to speak one-on-one with Cain. “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift,” the Eternal One encourages him (Genesis 4:7). God is saying to Cain then, and to us now, “I know how you feel. I even know what you are thinking. Don’t do it. Hang in there. Keep trying.”

To try our best and to keep trying is the ultimate measure of success!

In the end, doing our best is a more important measure than a teacher’s grade, a coach’s evaluation, a college’s decision to accept or reject an application, or a new job or promotion. If we give every situation our best effort, we learn and grow from our mistakes, and then we have achieved true success. It is one of life’s most important lessons, and one of the most difficult to learn.

Nevertheless, even after this one-on-one conversation, even after God makes clear what would happen unless he bridled his anger and jealousy, Cain killed his brother! This teaches us the concept of free will. Indeed, life would be meaningless if we were only puppets with God as the puppeteer.

In short, the story of Cain and Abel teaches us what God is and what God is not better than any story ever written.

God is the voice of our conscience urging us to do what is just and right, what is productive and positive. But—and this “but” is huge— God does not force us to do anything. So since Cain was determined to ignore God’s voice and kill Abel, God did not prevent him from doing so.

How profound a point is that?

Perhaps the question people ask me more than any other is, “Why didn’t God stop the Holocaust?” My answer is, “Read Cain and Abel.”

The fourth chapter of the first book of the Torah instructs us not to expect God to stop holocausts or any other act of evil. God exhorts Cain and us not to make rash and foolish decisions, but God does not stop us from making them.

After Cain kills Abel, God asks, “Where is Abel, your brother?”

And in the voice of a petulant child, Cain answers, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).

God’s answer rings out across the millennia: “Of course you are!” That is the whole point. If God’s goal in creating the world is for human beings to create a just, caring, and compassionate society, then the only way to achieve that goal is if we assume responsibility to be our brother’s or our sister’s keeper.

The story of Cain and Abel is truly profound. In sixteen short sentences, the Torah teaches us some of life’s most significant truths. Nobel laureate John Steinbeck considered East of Eden (a 776-page expansion on the Cain and Abel theme) his greatest work. Steinbeck called Cain and Abel “the symbol story of the human soul because it is every man’s story.”

We all deal with rejection many times in our lives. The toughest and most important question we face is how do we handle it?

Rabbi Fuchs’ first book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives has been translated into German and Russian. His second book, ToraHighlights has just been published with English and German in the same volume as a gesture of reconciliation between Progressive Judaism and the German people.

An encounter with Jesus: What Does it Mean to Be Created in God’s Image?

During the Festival of Sukkot it is a custom (called ushpitzin) to invite famous people from the past to visit our Sukkot, the temporary huts we build to celebrate the harvest festival. This year, I think it would be wonderful to invite Jesus and to clarify with him some implication of, “God created humanity in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26-27).”

If Jesus asked me to begin I would point to one of the most beautiful verses in Scripture that comes from Psalm 8 (verse 6):

ותחסרהו מעט מאלהים

While I love the English translation, “For you have made humanity little lower than the angels,” I think the German translation is closer to the original,

“Du hast ihn wenig niedriger gemacht als Gott, mit Ehre und Herrlichkeit hast du ihn gekrönt,” because it speaks of humanity as just a little less than God.

For our rabbis, the idea that humans are “a little less than God” or “a little lower than the angels” was a commentary on the notion that God created humanity in God’s image.

It does not mean we look like God, as God has no form or shape. It means that we human beings stand midway between the other terrestrial animals and God.

Like the animals we eat, sleep, drink, procreate, and die. But in a way far superior to them and approaching—but not quite reaching—God’s power, we think, communicate and create as no other animal can. (Bereshit Rabbah 14:3)

We are the only creature on earth that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore from the mountain, turn the ore into iron, the iron into steel and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human heart or brain.

But we are also the only creatures who can go to the mountain, mine ore from it turn the ore into iron and the iron into steel to make bombs and bullets whose only purpose is to kill or to maim other human beings.

Created in God’s image means that we have awesome power and God wants us to use that power responsibly.

Then I would seek clarification and ask:

Jesus, in your famous Sermon on the Mount, you offer your thoughts on how creatures created in God’s image should act.

Unfortunately some of your instructions have been misunderstood and misinterpreted through the years and have caused great harm to Jewish Christian relations.

I hope together we can set the record straight.

You said (as the Gospel of Matthew recorded your words in Chapter 5), “You have heard, “an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth.” Of course those words are found in Torah, but surely you know that there is not a single case in all 39 books of the Hebrew Bible where mutilation was imposed as a punishment for a crime.

Surely too, you know that your contemporary rabbis interpreted these verses to mean that fitting financial compensation should be set for criminals to pay their victims.

You also said; “You have heard, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” Had I been there to hear you speak I would have liked to ask, “Where did people hear that? Surely those words are not in our Torah.”

On the contrary: In Exodus 23:4-5 we read “ If you come upon your enemy’s ox or ass wandering in the fields, you must surely return it to him.

“If you see your enemy’s animal teetering under its burden, you must surely help him balance it.”

That certainly does not sound like hate your enemy to me.

A wonderful story illustrates the outlook of Jewish tradition, an outlook I am sure you share:

One year on the Eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest night of the year, the synagogue was packed with worshippers waiting for the service to begin.

But to everyone’s shock, the rabbi was not there.

“Where can he be?” People wondered.

The synagogue leaders sent people out to look for him, and finally they found him. He was leading a frightened calf back into its stall.

“What are you doing, the leaders asked?” Everyone is waiting for you in the synagogue!

I know,” the rabbi answered, but when I saw the animal was lost I had to being it back to its owner.

“But that man does not even like you,” the lay leaders said. “He has always been your enemy.”

“That is true,” the rabbi replied, but our Torah teaches that we must be kind to our enemies.”

Another version of the story has a different ending.

The rabbi is not in the synagogue at the time Yom Kippur Eve services are supposed to begin. The lay leaders looked for him and found him sitting in a nearby house rocking a baby in his arms.

When the leaders ask, what he is doing there instead of at the synagogue where everyone is waiting for him, the rabbi answered, “The child was crying. Comforting a crying child must take precedence even over the most important worship of the year.”

Jesus, I know we both agree that if we truly want to live up to our mandate as creatures created in the Divine Image, we must “love our neighbors,” even our enemies, as ourselves.

We must extend a helping hand even to those we do not like.

And we must dry the tears of crying children–

  • Who are homeless,
  • Who are hungry,
  • And who live in fear of violence.

Yes, created in God’s image means we must do our best to dry the tears of those who cry–

  • In our community,
  • In our nation,
  • And in this world that God has entrusted to our care!

I know that we agree on that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Acceptance Speech I would Love Hillary Clinton to Give

(In my dream last night it was November 9, the day after the election, and Hillary Clinton delivered the following speech)

 

Thank you America! Thank you! Thank you for making me the first candidate in history to win the electoral votes in all fifty of these great United States.

While I am beyond grateful for the overwhelming mandate you have given me, I know that this victory does not reflect in the minds of many voters complete confidence in the abilities and experiences of Hillary Clinton. I know that I received many votes because of the glaring character flaws of my opponent and the fears to which the thought of a Trump presidency gives rise.

I know that many of you question many of my actions in the past concerning my speeches, my use of a private email server and the deletion of many emails while I served as Secretary of State, and the relationship between our family foundation and my official duties.

I realize now that it was fair game for people to raise these issues.

I am, of course, eternally grateful to those who have so enthusiastically believed in and supported my candidacy. I would not be here with out you. Still I must acknowledge that some of you were overzealous in criticizing those who criticized me. In America we need to listen to and learn from those who criticize us as long as they do so in a civil tone.

On this day of victory, I want to say to my constructive critics: I HAVE HEARD YOU!

 I have heard you, and I promise as your president never again to do anything that will raise your suspicions about the ethics of my actions.

In his travels across Germany, speaking in school, synagogues and churches, Rabbi Stephen Fuchs has said time and again:

We cannot undo the past, but the future is our to shape.

The past is past. I have made my share of mistakes, and I will do my utmost not to repeat them. Please know, my fellow citizens, that I will try to the very best of my ability to act in ways that will only bring honor to our great country and to the high office to which you have elected me.

May God bless us all as we contemplate the future, and May God bless the United States of America!

Thank you!

Two Girls in the Sukkah: A Story for Sukkot

sukkah-photoJulie Goldstein looked forward each year to the time she and her family built their sukkah, a temporary hut in their backyard.

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

“Of course,” her mother said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Last week,” Sharon said, “my family and I helped build a house for a family that was living in a shelter. That sounds like one of the reasons we build the sukkah.”

“It sure does,” Julie agreed. “The sukkah doesn’t really offer protection from cold, heat or rain. It reminds us that so many people don’t have safe, warm houses like we do. You must have felt great when you helped build that house for people who did not have one.”

“It was wonderful,” Sharon answered!

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

“Sure,” said Julie.

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

“Didn’t we think of them at our food drive just a few days ago at Yom Kippur?”

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

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

“When I sit in the sukkah,” she continued, “and look up at the stars I feel closer to God. It makes me feel like a partner with God in trying to make the world a better place.

I think that is really the point of all our Holy Days and festivals,” Julie added. “Each one with its individual customs reminds us that God wants us to use our talents to make the world better.”

“Wow! I never thought of it like that,” Sharon answered. “I’m going to ask my parents if we can build a sukkah next year too!”

Sukkot and A Secret of Our Survival

Long before Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds became a 1960’s classic song our people taught the world what the Book of Ecclesiastes, the scroll we read during the Festival of Sukkot and the basis for the Byrds song, teaches: “L’chol man ate (Ecclesiastes 3:1). For everything there is a season.”

We taught the world that time has meaning.

It is not simply a cyclical repetition of what was before, but that in sanctifying time, we give meaning to our lives.

For Jews our Festival of Sukkot is “our season of rejoicing. In fact it is the only occasion during the year when we are commanded to rejoice (Leviticus 23:40) .

During long years when poverty was our norm and persecution often our plight, we survived and thrived because we forced ourselves to rejoice even when the fibers of our souls resisted. We forced ourselves, though, to rejoice because we believed that God commanded us to do so.

Zits, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, is one of my favorite comic strips. Zits is about an adolescent boy named Jeremy Duncan who inhabits—in his mind–a world light years away from his clueless parents. In one strip a typically grumpy Jeremy mocks his mother by saying he knows what she will say. “Maybe you’d feel better if you tried looking on the bright side for a change.” And then in parody of his mother’s wishes he continues to poke fun, and with an air of pseudo enthusiasm he proclaims: “I can solve all of my problems by simply having happy thoughts. I see that the sun rose right on schedule again…Don’t you love how paint sticks to walls all by itself…Well I’m off to take advantage of another day of free taxpayer supported public education. Lucky Me!”

And then, two panels later, with his mother out of sight, he grudgingly acknowledges to himself. “Crud. I DO feel better.”

By following our tradition’s commandments to rejoice, we somehow manage to feel better even in bad times. Perhaps that is why we Jews–despite all that has happened to us–are still here

To Welcome the Stranger

 

Thoughts shared at Kirchengemeinde, Schulensee, Germany, October 9, 2016

(In Honor of Rabbi (Dr.) Ferenć Raj, who has exemplified these ideals throughout his distinguished career)

We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah! But we never claim that Torah was history’s first Code of Law. There are several that came before. The Code of Hammurabi was the most famous.

But we do claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to the non-citizen. “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It may surprise you to know that this idea, so beautifully read for us this morning, does not appear just once in our Torah nor even twice.

The Torah emphasizes this crucial revolution in human thinking no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment appears so frequently.

We find the roots of this commandment in the stories about the man we consider the first Jew, Abraham. Our Torah teaches that God—in an effort to see the world become more just, caring and compassionate—made a Covenant with Abraham and all of us who see ourselves as his descendants.

In the Covenant God promised:

  • To protect Abraham
  • Give him the progeny he desperately craved
  • Make him and his seed a permanent people. (After 4000 years, we are still here. That is permanent, is it not, even by European standards?)
  • (Finally, God promised us that tiny sliver of land in the Middle East that is Israel today.

But a covenant is not just a unilateral promise. It is a binding agreement.

In exchange for these rewards, God charged Abraham and all of us:

  • To be a blessing (Genesis 12:2)
  • To walk in God’s ways and live up to God’s teachings (Genesis 17:1)
  • To fill the world and teach his descendants—again, that is all of us—with ומשפט צדקה (Tzedakah u’mishpat), “righteousness and justice.” (Genesis 18:19)

As the Torah teaches (Genesis 18:1-8) Abraham rushed out into the desert to greet three strangers. He brought them into his tent, helped them wash, and then served them a sumptuous meal.

Our Midrashic tradition expands the lesson of this story. We read that Abraham’s tent had an opening on all four of its sides so that he would see all who approached his tent from any direction. Then he would rush out into the desert to welcome them in the way we read of his welcome this morning.

Another legend tells that once an old man was wandering toward his tent, and Abraham, as was his custom, ran out to greet him. He ushered him into his tent, helped him was and served him a delicious meal in the same manner that he welcomed the three men in this morning’s reading.

After the man finished dining, though, he took an idol out of his sack and began to worship it.

Abraham was furious that the man would profane his tent with such blasphemy.

He screamed at the man in rage, picked him up bodily and through him, his idol and his sack out into the desert.

Then he heard the voice of God

“Abraham, Abraham! I have put up with that man and his idol worship for 75 years! Could you not have tolerated him for even a single night?”

Ashamed, Abraham ran out into the cold desert night, caught up with the man, apologized profusely and implored him to return to his tent.

So, what does this teach us?

Germany has done more than any country to welcome refugees from upheaval in foreign lands, particularly in Syria. She has learned from the horrible period of Nazi rule. Her efforts have been exemplary, but no one can deny that the presence of people who appear different and have different customs makes some people uneasy.

But our biblical mandate is clear!

If we truly consider ourselves descendants of Abraham, we must—even if it is not always convenient—go out of our way to bring them into our tent as they recover from the ravages of war, displacement and great loss.

Yes, if we would honor the example of Abraham, we must welcome those who seek asylum in our midst and, to paraphrase the prophet Micah, settle them under their new vines and fig trees and do our utmost to see that none shall make them afraid. (Micah 4:4)

 

What God Is and What God Is Not

Important Lessons We Learn From the First Murder—Cain and Abel

Nobel Prize winning author, John Steinbeck, called Cain and Abel: “Perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness.” It is “the best known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul…the greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the one hell he fears.”

I agree with Steinbeck. The sixteen-sentence story of Cain and Abel has much to teach us about life in our contemporary world, the reality of rejection, and what we can expect and what we should not expect from God.

In the novel, Steinbeck puts these words into the mouth of the remarkable Chinese servant, Lee . . . The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection.”

Without doubt, Cain and Abel is a story about all of us because all of us have felt rejection. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. They both make offerings to the Eternal One. God rejects Cain’s offering, but accepts Abel’s.

Why does God accept one offering and not the other? For rabbinic tradition it is not a problem. Abel brought his best; Cain did not. Bereshit Rabbah 22:3 claims that Cain’s offering was the waste products of the fruit, or the late-blooming, stunted fruits as opposed to Abel’s gift of the best he had.

Our Sages are not comfortable with the notion that God would capriciously reject one offering and accept another. So, they read the text to reflect God acting righteously. In so doing, though, I feel they have both distorted and diminished the story’s message!

The phrase (in Genesis4:3), “for his part,” is a rendering of the single two letter Hebrew word, “GAM.” Now anyone who has studied Hebrew knows “GAM” means, “also.” If we translate, as some Bible versions do, “GAM” as “also,” we give a much different meaning to the story.

“In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the Eternal One from the fruit of the soil and Abel also brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.”

What a difference!

When we read the text substituting “also” for “for his part” we see both boys making their best offering, but God accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s.

The obvious question is, “Why?”

“I don’t know why!” I cannot speak for God, and God does not answer to me. But I do know this: Sometimes the Torah does not teach us about how life should be, but about how life is.

The story of Cain and Abel is so real because we all have felt—and will fee— Cain’s pain. We all make offerings– sometimes our very best offerings–that others reject.

  • Did you ever study for days—even weeks–for a test and receive a mediocre grade while another in your class got an A for seemingly little effort?
  • Did you ever dream of being the star of the team? Did you work oh, so hard only to end up a reserve on the bench when another grabbed all the glory?
  • Did you ever hone your skills and your resume to apply for a promotion that went to another?
  • Did you ever offer your love to someone who did not return your feelings but gave his or her heart to your rival?

No one goes through life without Cain’s experience of making offerings that others reject. The biggest challenge in life is not how to avoid rejection but how to overcome it!

Here, our story is especially instructive. God takes time to address Cain, as I believe God addresses each and every one of us, saying: “Why are you distressed? Why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift, but if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you, but you may rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)

What is God’s advice when others reject our offerings? Keep on keeping on! Keep making offerings, keep doing the very best that we can. When others reject our offerings, we identify with Cain’s reaction to God’s rejection. Just as Cain was angry and jealous, so are we!

As Steinbeck himself wrote in his notes: “Every man (sic) has Cain in him.” (Notes, p. 128) The successful person is not the one whose offerings are always accepted but the one who perseveres, keeps doing her or his best, and continues to live positively and productively even in the face of rejection.

Sometimes I wish the story of Cain ended after God’s message of hope, but it doesn’t. As we know, despite God’s personal appeal, Cain kills Abel. We may rule over the urge to sin, but then again, we can choose not to!

As much as we might wish that God would have stepped in and stopped Cain’s murder, God does not.

So many people say to me, “How can you believe in God after God let so many people die in the Holocaust?” My response is that, in the fourth chapter of the very first book of the Torah, Jewish tradition makes clear that it is foolishly naive for us to expect that God will thwart the evil intentions of humanity.

Now scholars argue whether God can stop evil and chooses not to, or whether God’s power to stop evil is limited. I don’t know, so I leave that debate to others, but I do know this:

If God stepped in to stop all evil, then the decisions we make in our life would not have meaning, and if our Torah affirms one principle above all, it is that life does have meaning.

When I was a kid I remember advertisements on TV for Colgate Dental Cream with “gardol.” There would be this big white thing with a mouth and eye and two arms. That was Happy Tooth. Then we would see this slimy figure on a horse with a lance galloping toward Happy Tooth. That was Mr. Tooth Decay, and his mission was to poke holes or cavities in Happy Tooth.

Just before Mr. Tooth Decay reaches Happy Tooth, Happy Tooth brushes himself with Colgate Dental Cream with “gardol”, as we hear in the background: “Brush you teeth with Colgate, Colgate Dental Cream. It cleans your teeth, while it guards your breath. UMMH…”

Now, somewhere between “breath” and “ummh”, an invisible Lucite-like wall slams down in front of Happy Tooth to protect it. About a second later, Mr. Tooth Decay slams into the invisible Gardol shield in front of Happy Tooth. When he hits the wall, Mr. Tooth Decay breaks his lance, tumbles to the ground, and slinks away in disheveled disgrace.

The point here is that according to our Bible, God is not “gardol.”

From its very beginning our tradition offers no legitimate basis to expect God to intervene and prevent human evil. In other words, if a madman arises who kills six million Jews, and then society, not God, must bear the blame.

If God does not stop evil, then what does God do?

To me, God is the force within us that urges us toward goodness. It is God’s voice, I believe, that strains for our attention when we feel tempted to do wrong. It is also God’s voice that strains for our attention after we do wrong.

God asks Cain, “Where is Abel your brother? And Cain responds, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Hopefully, God’s answer to Cain echoes to us across the millennia: “Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

Am I my brother’s keeper? Of course we are, and we make our lives meaningful only when we accept that awesome responsibility.

And so there it is: a story that teaches how to face rejection, why God doesn’t stop Holocausts, and how God wants us to live!

To these vital lessons, the rabbis add one more. The Midrash recounts that one day, after God announced that Cain would not die for his sin, his father Adam saw him wandering across the land. “Cain,” called out father Adam. “What did God do to you?”

“I did Teshuvah, I repented,” Cain answered, “and God forgave me.”

“Gevalt!” Answered Adam. “God forgave you?! If I had known the power of Teshuvah was so great, I would still be living in the Garden of Eden!”

Adam may not have known the power of repentance and forgiveness, but we can discover it. If we truly repent our wrongdoings, we, like Cain, can discover the immense power of God’s forgiveness for which we pray during the sacred day of Yom Kippur.

 

 

Why Do I Still Get So Nervous?

On Monday Vickie and I take a long train ride to Freiburg where I will have a talk about my books, ToraHighlights and What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. On Tuesday evening and Wednesday I will have the privilege of joining Cantor (Dr.) Annette Böckler of the Leo Baeck College in London in leading the community in worship for Yom Kippur. I am so very excited for these and the many wonderful opportunities coming up for us in Germany and later this month in Wroclaw, Poland.

Along with my excitement though, I will also be extremely nervous. Even after more than 50 years of speaking in public, I still get very nervous each and every time.

It was good to learn I am not alone!

About eighteen months ago, I presented the issue to my rabbinic colleagues on Facebook in this message:

Am I the only one who gets REALLY nervous every time I speak? I don’t really get it. I can’t count how many times I have spoken in public since I entered HUC in 1968 and even lots before that. And yet, whether it is Kol Nidre before a big crowd or 20 kids in a classroom, I get really nervous. I hope (and have been told often) that it doesn’t show—Baruch Ha-Shem—but I don’t fully understand why that happens. Any thoughts?

The fear might have begun with my Bar Mitzvah. I thought I would die (literally) before I could get up and read from the Torah. “You mean the scroll has NO vowels, and they expect ME to read it,” I exclaimed incredulously to my parents!

But then I did my first ever exercise in deductive reasoning. I thought:

  • Kids in my class who are older then I have celebrated their B’nai Mitzvah.
  • Some of them are dumber than I am.
  • All of them are still alive.

Vital Lesson Learned

Therefore, I reasoned, if I really practice and study hard, maybe I can make it. And I did.

The lesson has served me well all these years. I always try to be well-prepared, but that has never prevented me from getting very nervous. And so half-afraid that my colleagues would laugh at me, I posted my question.

To my surprise thirteen different colleagues affirmed, “You are not alone,” and several others clicked “Like” in recognition of my issue.

Although different people feel it to different degrees, the nervousness is a function of really caring about what we say and wanting it to have as much meaning as possible to those who listen.

A Small Price to Pay

Knowing that “it is not just me” who gets nervous was very reassuring. Thanks to my colleagues I embrace the nervousness I must overcome each time I speak and try to turn into energy and focus that makes my presentation more effective than it otherwise would be. The feelings will always be there, I realize a small price to pay for the sacred privilege of sharing both my experiences and the things I have learned over the years with others.