Is That You, God?

Everything the Torah shares with us about Jacob’s youth is negative.**

He takes advantage of his brother’s hunger to extort the family birthright from him. The birthright is defined as the double share of the family inheritance given the eldest son in those days. If one of my children did what Jacob did to Esau to his or her sibling, we would have had a long talk about how unacceptable his or her behavior was, and I hope Vickie and I would impose an appropriately instructive punishment.

Later at his mother’s urging, Jacob stood before his blind father, dressed in Esau’s clothes, lied twice through his teeth when he swore to Isaac, “I am Esau your first born.”

The purpose of this  horrible charade was to obtain his father’s blessing that designated him as the spiritual heir to the Covenant God first made with Abraham to (ironically considering what Jacob did) make the world a better place.

Esau is furious, and Rebecca prudently advises Jacob to lay low for a while and sends him off to her home in Haran to live with her brother Laban.

Despite being designated as the principal heir to the family fortune and spiritual partner of the Eternal One, Jacob flees his home as a penniless refugee.

But on his first night away from home Jacob’s life and it direction change forever.

He encounters a God in a dream and awakes to a realization that there is a purpose to his life beyond his own selfish interests. “Surely,” he exclaims, “the Eternal One is here, but I had no clue. How awesome is this place!”

“This place” was neither the Garden of Eden or nor some magnificent edifice. “This place” was a barren desert stopping point where Jacob lay down with a rock for his pillow.

Jacob’s transformation was not instantaneous.

It would take twenty years of hard living and being tricked and cheated by Laban just as Jacob had tricked and cheated his father and brother.

But after those twenty years, we see a much different Jacob then the boy who left home.

  • Twenty years later we see Jacob eager to return the value of what he stole to his brother and then some.
  • Twenty years later we see Jacob, “the supplanter” fully embrace his destiny as Covenantal partner with the Eternal One

What does this mean to us?

God can appear in our lives anywhere and at any time, but like Jacob, we must be receptive to the encounter.

I believe I encountered God during the first night I was at Eisner Camp at age twelve. I could not sleep at all, and I watched the full moon move across the sky. When it disappeared completely behind a cloud, I thought I had seen its last, but it emerged to illumine the night once again. As the moon continued its journey in and out of darkness, a clear message embedded itself in my heart, a message I have called to mind often in the ensuing years:

“There will be clouds in your life. There will be things that disappoint you and darken your days. But keep moving forward. Keep trying your best, and, like the moon, your light will shine again.”

Now some will think it foolish that a twelve-year-old boy interpreted this ordinary experience as an encounter with the Eternal One, but I cling to my belief that it was. It changed the direction of my life.

The change at that moment was barely perceptible, as was the change in Jacob’s life after his dream. For me as well, the change from self-centered boy to (I hope) responsible and caring though, (like Jacob) still flawed adult took many years.

But I learned that first night at camp to open myself to the possibility that any time and any place God may be trying to tell me something or give me an opportunity to make a positive change in my life or do something good for someone.

Many will scoff at my “foolish naïveté,” but there is one thing I know for sure.

If we are all on the alert for moments when God is offering us insight as to how we can live more meaningful purposeful lives, the world in which we live would become a much better place.

For the God I worship, making the world better is the highest goal of all.

 

 

(Jewish folklore andMidrashic literature take the opposite view of Jacob’s character. I discuss these themes and how the story of Jacob can instruct our lives in the chapter, “Jacob: Is this the One to Inherit the Covenant,” in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.)

http://tinyurl.com/jdd4cvn

 

 

Harsh Words Still Hurt

Recently our younger son Ben celebrated his 35th birthday. I am thrilled that he is at a very good place in life with a wonderful wife, two beautiful children and a fulfilling career.

Ben is my youngest child, and I was my father’s. I rejoice that I have lived to see my son celebrate his 35th birthday, and I don’t want to stop there. But my father died when I was 24.

He never saw me become a rabbi, and he never met Vickie nor, of course, our children and grandchildren.

I am grateful, though that my father saw me conduct one service and deliver one sermon the year before he died. It was in the summer after my first year in rabbinical school, and I was asked to fill in for vacationing Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, in my home congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ.

My dad was already very sick, but he arranged for special treatment including a blood transfusion that day just so that he could be there. It was a Herculean effort on his part, and I will always treasure the memory of that night.

The service went well, and my father was jubilant. When a friend asked him how he felt,  his reply still reverberates in my heart: “With medicine like that, how can I not feel wonderful?”

Later he shared with my mother, “Now I can die in peace because I know my son has the talent to succeed in the career he has chosen. What I worry about is how will he deal with the criticism both warranted and unwarranted that a rabbi must endure.”

Dad, you were right to worry!

I have learned so much over the years from constructive criticism that I have received from teachers, friends and even casual observers.

But to this day, unthinking, harsh personal comments cut into my soul like a sharp knife.

The fact that I have learned that such attacks “come with the territory” and are the “price of doing business” a rabbi pays for putting him or herself out there in a public or semi public way does not diminish the pain.

On a trip to Israel during the intifada our small group met Israel’s former Prime Minister and later President, the late Shimon Peres. After his talk to us, I asked him how he deals with the vicious criticism people have hurled at him during his long career.

He replied, “If I believe that what I am doing is right, it does not bother me.”

I wish I had his fortitude.

It is nearly fifty years since I began to prepare to become a rabbi. I am still working on dealing with gratuitous criticism. To be honest, I still have a long way to go.

The Choir

BB12FDAC-A524-4F2C-9AE1-3C1CFF66450EAlmost daily the beautiful choir of Ibis (above) visits our front lawn here in Sanibel. They are magnificent in their beauty, and I marvel at their stately grace as they high step through the neighborhood

The group consists of about eight white birds, and one of color. The bird of color is neither the leader of the group nor its servant . . . just one of them. He or she suffers no  discrimination.

The white birds completely accept the bird of color as a fellow Ibis.

When I was a small child my mother gave me a record called, Little Songs on Big Subjects. One of my favorite lyrics is,

”As the peach pit said to the Apple core, the color of the skin doesn’t matter any more …”

Clearly, our Ibis choir has learned this vital lesson.

When will we humans?

 

(I have learned, thanks to my wonderful friend and bird expert, Caren Schoen, that the Ibis of Color is really a baby that will look before long like the rest of the flock. I hope that in this case science does not diminish the message of the essay.)

A Trip I Had to Make

Thomaskirche photo

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

Fall, 1968

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 Angeles. 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.

Summer, 1982

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.

The 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.

67 Jews in Leipzig **

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.

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  (Zachor)  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.

How could God allow the Holocaust?

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.

A Miraculous Vision

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.

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 synagogue 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 the future is ours to shape.

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!

 

 

 

**Today, because of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, some 1300 Jews live in Leipzig.

 

Thank you, Rochelle!

November 5 is a special day in my life. It is the anniversary of the day in 1955 when my sister Rochelle became the second Bat Mitzvah in the history of Temple Sharey Tefilo, East Orange, NJ, which was founded in 1875.**

It was a struggle!

Our father did not see “why girls had to do that,” but my sister really wanted to, and our mother backed her up.

To his credit, Rabbi Avraham Soltes conducted the service in the same way he conducted Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for boys. Specifically, that meant Rochelle read from the Torah on Shabbat morning. She read the troubling story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s insistence.

Dad was very proud!

Her service, I noted, was different than the Bat Mitzvah ceremonies experienced in subsequent years by our girl cousins who grew up in a Conservative congregation in a different city. Their services were held on a Friday night, and they did not read from the Torah scroll.

I did not realize it at the time, but Rochelle’s courage in standing up to Dad and doing something he would not have chosen for her to do changed the course of my life.

For me, as a boy, Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah studies were expectations. Frankly, Religious school became something I tried to think up excuses to avoid.

To her credit, my mother would have none of it. Her response to my latest sore throat, upset stomach or onset of pneumonia was always the same, “That’s too bad, dear. Get in the car.”

But something of Rochelle’s persistence began to play on my mind.

‘Chelle was and is rather shy. Unlike me she never craved the spotlight. She never to my knowledge starred in school plays or even desired to. She clearly did not want a Bat Mitzvah ceremony to show the world how well she could perform. She only wanted to affirm her pride in being considered a Jewish adult.

Slowly an impression formed. If Rochelle, who was the smartest person I knew, thought this “Judaism stuff” was so important that she would stand firm against Dad to affirm it, there must be something to it.

My transformation from disinterest in Jewish learning to loving embrace of it was not a sudden epiphany. It evolved over time. When people ask what made you decide to become a rabbi, I can point to several events in my life that contributed to the decision.

But as years have gone by I see that November 5, 1955, played a very important part in changing the direction of my life.

Rochelle never wanted to be a rabbi, but she wanted to marry a Jewish man and have a Jewish family. She and my brother-in-law Jack are proud parents of four daughters, each of whom celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and seven grandchildren. Six of the seven have read from the Torah as B’nai Mitzvah and the seventh is on our calendar for the fall of 2019. I am ever grateful for her example.

 

 

** Roseanne Platt, who became a well-known Jewish educator, and had it been possible then would have loved to be a rabbi, was the first. Roseanne, if you read this, I would be eager to connect with you.