Elul Arrives

Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19 C Hasidic leader in Poland taught that everyone should have two pockets, each inscribed with a different quotation. In one, for when he/she is feeling puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when a person feels that his/her efforts are of no consequence, let her/him read: “For my sake the world was created.”

 During this month of Elul we Jews dedicate our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest we know that there are many times we have fallen short of both our own ideals and the Almighty’s hopes for us as creatures created in the Divine image. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or little more than dust and ashes.

 At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!

 We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. The world was created for us human beings to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from dong something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless.

 But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments ore even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27) we are ”but dust and ashes.”

 One of life’s must difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair. Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

 I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th c.) noted the zodiacal symbol for Tishri (next month, the month which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) is a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.

 Think of the power the image can have. If each of us awakens feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our communities and our world.

 

 

 

 

At Last

Today I got word that What’s in It for Me! Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives was available for sale on KINDLE and NOOK. What a thrill it was for me to see my book’s link!

It will still be some time before it is available in hard copy other than through my web page, http://www.rabbifuchs.com, but no matter!

Now the ideas I have been studying, teaching and developing for more than 40 years have a chance to reach and influence a significant number of people. It is welcome news as Shabbat approaches.

It is especially meaningful that this milestone occurred while I am in Columbia, MD where I will teach some of these ideas at Temple Isaiah. TI is the congregation that welcomed me as it’s first rabbinic intern 41 years ago, and TI is the congregation which installed me as it’s first full-time rabbi a year later.

Temple Isaiah is the congregation that celebrated my marriage to Vickie and rejoiced with us in the birth of our three children, gifting each with a beautifully engraved Sterling Kiddush Cup. Now that my children are adults, those beautiful symbols of Shabbat joy mean so much to them and to Vickie and me!

I served Temple Isaiah for thirteen years in all. The congregation is my first professional love, and the bonds are enduring. So I am back to teach Torah with the same enthusiasm and joy as I had when I arrived 41 years ago. I come with the same hope I cherished then: that my message will have meaning for those who hear it and inspire at least one person to use his or her talents to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!

I feel very blessed!

Another Thought About Balaam

Shabbat Balak has passed, but the beauty of studying the same portions of the Torah each year is that I always discover new insights. Today while leading Torah study at my synagogue (Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut, where I am Rabbi Emeritus), I learned the following:

Balaam’s animal that speaks to him is a female. How consistent this is with the theme that it is often the female in the Bible who guides, instructs (or shapes the events surrounding) the clueless male. Beginning with Eve women like Rebecca, Tamar, the six women of the Exodus (discussed in an earlier web site essay), Samson’s un-named mother, Hannah, Ruth, Vashti and Esther are much more savvy than their male counterparts.

Bur there is more. Balaam was a world class sorcerer. The Sages claim that Balaam communicated directly with the Almighty (B. Zevahim 116A) and that he was the gentile equivalent for brilliance of Moses’ himself. (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20) And yet in the story, Balaam is totally oblivious to the presence of God’s messenger while his animal sees the angel clearly. Wow!

When we think of dumb animals, asses are the metaphor! They don’t come dumber than that. And yet the ass gets it and Balaam, the smartest man alive, is clueless!

What does that teach us? There is something we can learn from everyone! Never look down on anyone!

I first learned this lesson–very painfully–in the sixth grade. Back then I was pretty OK in school. Reading, English and history were strong subjects. I was even OK at math, and I say proudly, I was the best speller in the class. And if I am honest, I looked down on those students who had trouble grasping these subjects.

Then I had shop.

I was the worst. It took me forever to finish my first project and before I painted my “magnificent” dog door stop, I went to the teacher Mr. L. A. Molinari for instructions on the final steps. He told me what to do, but I wanted to be sure, so I asked him to please go over it again. Mr. Molinari snapped at me in anger, saying, “You weren’t listening! You’re through for the day!” And I had to sit–fighting back tears–doing nothing for the rest of the period at my work bench while the rest of the guys continued their work.

I get it now. In shop I was the dummy. Mr. Molinari pegged me as a slacker even though all I wanted was to be sure to do the right thing. In the meantime all of those guys (only boys took shop back then) who were not as good in English and spelling as I was were way more proficient than I was at shop.

What a vital lesson that has been for me in my career as a rabbi! We all learn in different ways. We all have strengths and weaknesses. In the story of Balaam the ass, dumbest of animals was able to help the smartest person in the world see the light.

What’s in It for Me? What does this story teach you and me? Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma said it best: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone!” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

To that I would humbly add: And the one who does not look down on anyone!

What Happens After I Die?

Of the 150 chapters that comprise our people’s first and greatest prayer book, the biblical book of Psalms, only one of those chapters is attributed to the greatest Jew of all—Moses. That is Psalm 90, which contains humanity’s fervent appeal to God: “Establish for us the work of our hands!”

Moses’s appeal is not just for temporal prosperity, as some might interpret it. It is much grander than that. He is saying, “Let me know that my life has meaning beyond the days I have spent on earth. Let me be sure, O God, that the years of my earthly journey were not in vain. Let me know that in some way I live on.”

We express that same hope every time we visit a cemetery and every time we place a monument marker at the grave of a loved one.

One of the questions people ask me most frequently is, “Rabbi, what really happens to me after I die? Do we Jews believe in life after death? Do we believe in heaven or hell?”

The simple answer to the question is, “Yes! We do!” Rabbinic literature speaks of olam ha-ba, “the world to come,” as a place where the righteous receive reward and the wicked are appropriately punished.

“Why then,” the questioner retorts, “do we hear so little of this in Jewish life while it is at the center of every Christian service or funeral that I attend?”

The answer points to a significant and honest difference between Christianity and Judaism as they developed. Our daughter religion was very much centered on the afterlife. Achieving salvation after death was the primary goal of living as classical Christianity understood it. If one believed in the saving power of the life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Jesus as the Christ (which is simply a Greek word for “Messiah”), then one’s eternal salvation and reward were assured.

For Jews, questions of afterlife have always been much less central. Our primary focus has always been on this life. Our primary goal in living is not to attain salvation in the world beyond, but to make the world in which we live as good a place as we possibly can.

In recent decades, we Jews—Reform Jews in particular—have so submerged mention of the afterlife that many Jews frame their question to me as an assumption. They say, “We don’t believe in life after death. Do we, Rabbi?”

Again, I would assert, “Yes, we do!” For Jews, attaining the reward in olam ha-ba (“the world to come”) does not depend on what we believe. It depends on how we act. It does not matter what we believe or do not believe about God. It is a matter of how we live our lives.

We are also very fuzzy on the details. Our focus has primarily been “Live your life here on earth as well as you can. And the afterlife, whatever it will be, will take care of itself.”

Still, our hearts yearn for a more specific answer to the question “What happens after I die?” I shall share mine with you. I divide my response into two parts: what I hope and what I know.

I hope, and in my heart I believe, that good people receive, in some way, rewards from God in a realm beyond the grave. I hope that they are reunited with loved ones and live on with them in a realm free of the pain and debilitation that might have marked the latter stages of their earthly life.

Speaking personally, my father died at age fifty-seven; and my mother, who never remarried, died at age eighty-eight. She was a widow for more years than she was married. My fondest hope since her death is that they are together again, enjoying the things they enjoyed on earth and as much in love with each other as the day they stood beneath the chuppah to unite their lives.

I hope, pray, and even trust that they are young, strong, and vigorous—not weak and frail as they each were before they died. I hope and pray also that, in some indescribable way, they are able to feel and share the joy of the happy events that our family has shared since they left us.

I cannot of course prove that any of this is true. Yet there is warrant for these hopes in the annals of Jewish tradition. There are enough wonderful stories attesting to an eternal reward for goodness in the world beyond to allow me to cling tenaciously to my hope and belief.

Beyond what I merely hope, though, there is an aspect of afterlife of which I am absolutely sure. Our loved ones live on in our memories, and those memories can surely inspire us to lead better lives.

At the beginning of Noah Gordon’s marvelous novel The Rabbi, the protagonist, Rabbi Michael Kind, thinks of his beloved grandfather who died when he was a teenager and recalls a Jewish legend that teaches, “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise know they are loved, and they rejoice.” As I said, I hope but certainly cannot prove that it is true. But I can reformulate that legend into a statement that is unimpeachable: When I think of my dear ones, I know that I have been loved, and I rejoice. I rejoice in and try to live up to the life lessons they taught me. I rejoice in the memories of happy times I shared with them. I rejoice in the knowledge that I am a better person because of them.

Not long ago, I decided to dedicate two seats in the rear of our sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel in memory of my parents. I chose those seats because they mark the exact spot in my boyhood synagogue where my parents’ reserved High Holy Day seats were located in the sanctuary of Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ, where I grew up.

Every time I look at them, it is easy to imagine them sitting there. During silent prayers and when the cantor sings, my heart overflows with wonderfully inspiring memories.

On Yom Kippur and  on the last day of our Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot festivals, we say Yizkor prayers for the same purpose: to draw inspiration from the wonderful memories that fill our hearts and minds when we think of those whom we have loved. We long for them, and we want to be worthy of them. The acute presence of their absence reminds us that life is finite and calls to us to make each day count in living up to their ideals and doing what we can to make the world a better place.

I believe we can—if we listen—hear them call to us as God called to Abraham in establishing the sacred covenant of our faith: Be a blessing! Study and follow God’s instruction! Practice and teach those you love to practice righteousness and justice!

And then when we turn their words into our actions, we know—we absolutely know—that our loved ones are immortal and that they live on in a very real and special way.

Arkansas Memories: My Student Pulpit

To this day I remember the excitement that I felt more than 43 years ago when I learned I was “Going to McGehee!”  It was the spring of my third year at HUC, and I was studying in Israel.   I wanted a bi-weekly, preferably in the south because I had never been there. When I learned that I had been matched to become the student rabbi at the Meir Chayim Temple in McGehee in the southwest corner of Arkansas I was overjoyed.

My first trip was a two-week stint for the Holy Days. I flew to Memphis as instructed and then to Little Rock. I picked up my car from THRIFTY Rent-A-Car and drove the hundred miles to Dumas in a huge old green Hudson.  When I pulled up in front of their home, Temple President, Bob Heiman and his wife Hattie, both of very blessed memory, were waiting  outside to greet me.  When I turned off the motor, the car would not stop running for about a minute.  Although I expected the car would explode momentarily, Bob, who had been in the automobile business laughed heartily and said that it was no big deal.

I still remember the title of my first ever Rosh Hashanah sermon:  “I Want to Start All Over!”  For every visit during my two years there, I worked hard to prepare every sermon and every Torah reading, translating as I went along.  To this day, I still love to read from the scroll this way.

That visit marked the first time I was ever on radio with a short program each weekday during the days between the Holy Days.  I remember the announcer saying: “We present Rabbi Stephen Fuchs who is conducting Holy Week services at the My-er Ki-em Temple in McGehee.”  “Rabbi Stephen Fuchs!” I loved the sound, but I was shocked when I heard the name of the synagogue pronounced that way. Little did I realize that the members pronounced it that way too!  I did ask the announcer to change “Holy Week services” to Services for the Days of Awe,” and he graciously did.

On my next visit THRIFTY replaced the vintage Hudson with a brand new, fire engine red Ford Torino–which broke down as I was driving back to Little Rock, right in front of the State prison in Cummins!  Every hundred yards there were warning signs, saying, “Prison area.  Do not stop!”  I still think of it as a miracle that somebody did stop, jumped the battery, and that I made it to Little Rock just in time to catch my plane.

When in the spring Bob told me that the temple would love for me to return for a second year, I felt it was a great honor.

My second year included my first Confirmation Class. During the Confirmation service each of my four students read from the Torah scroll and offered commentary on the portion that he or she had chosen.  It was quite a feat because none had had any formal Hebrew training at the time.  I still remember it as a beautiful and meaningful service.

When I entered HUC it was my desire from the very beginning to be a congregational rabbi.  Therefore I considered my bi-weekly pulpit to be by far my most important “class.”  I looked forward to each visit with great enthusiasm.  I shall never forget the warmth and hospitality of the members who opened their homes and hearts to me.

When it appeared in 2009 that the congregation was ready to close, I offered at my expense to take a Shabbat off from my congregation in West Hartford to visit and conduct a Shabbat service.  It was a great thrill for me to be back.

I am so glad that I made that trip, and it seemed to mean a great deal to the congregation as well. The congregation Continue to struggle, but time and changing demographics forced its ultimate closure in June 2016

As I look back over my career in Columbia, MD, Nashville, TN, West Hartford, CT, and as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I feel very blessed that I felt the warm embrace of some of the nicest people anywhere in SE Arkansas.  They taught me so much about being a rabbi, and I consider it a great blessing that I was privileged to serve the Meir Chayim Temple in McGehee!

 

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

http://deshacountyhistorical.org  Meir Chayim Temple, McGehee, AR

 

 

A Mothers’ Day Tribute to My Mom, Florence Fuchs

My sister and I owe my mother more than we can ever repay. When Rochelle wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah back in 1955-–and she became only the second Bat Mitzvah in the history of Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ–it was my mother who stood up for her when my father didn’t “see any reason for a girl to do that.”

When I developed every illness known to man on Sunday mornings to get out of religious school, I can still hear Mom say, “That’s too bad, dear. Get in the car.”

After my Bar Mitzvah when I absolutely knew that my career as a tennis, hockey, basketball, football or baseball player was the only important thing in my life and that I simply had no time for Confirmation classes, my Mother would not hear of that either. I often wonder what I would be doing today if Mom had let me become a “Bar Mitzvah Fade Away.”

I owe my mother so much, but when my father suffered through a long battle with kidney failure Florence Fuchs emerged as the greatest hero of my life.

In those days, when I was off studying, my bedroom became the “Dialysis Room.” My mother set up and operated an elaborate (and it was a much more complex matter in 1969 than it is today) dialysis machine, which along with the bed took up almost the entire room. She ran that machine faithfully, skillfully and lovingly for several hours three times a week, and prolonged both the length and quality of my father’s all too short life.

It is one thing for children to love their mother. It is more remarkable for people to love their spouses’ mother the way Jack and Vickie loved Mom. She delighted in ‘Chelle’s 50-year marriage to Jack and was always grateful for the scrupulous and loving way they have looked after her finances. Vickie treated Mom as a second Mother who was wise, kind, loving, and fair — and who never interfered.

I think of her often especially when Mother’s Day and her birthday, May 15 come around. When the little obstacles life places in my path seem to mount up,

I remember how my mother handled the obstacles life placed before her, and my problems suddenly become less overwhelming.

As a rabbi, my life work is to teach that God created us human beings to be in charge of and responsible for this world and to use our talents to create a just, caring compassionate society. I am blessed that my Mother exemplified those ideals for me since I was old enough to remember.

When the company for which Dad worked went out of business when I was eight years old, I never knew that money was tight. It was a year before Dad and his partners set up their own business and some time after that before things became comfortable.

Now that I look back on it, we did not go on vacation or go out to eat in those days, but I never really noticed. She kept adult worries out of my childhood. I am so grateful for that and for so many other things:

She schlepped to the wilds of Arkansas, Maryland, Nashville and West Hartford to be wherever I was during the Holy Days and other special times.

She showed me the joys of Judaism and opened my eyes to its depth:

By lighting Shabbat candles,

Cooking a special and delicious Shabbat dinner each week,

Bringing me to services, and making me feel important for being there,

And teaching me to respect the religions of others the way she taught me to love my own.

The way Mom took care for Dad years when he was so sick showed me what to look for in a life partner, and in a few weeks Vickie and I will celebrate forty years of marriage.

It is hard to believe she has been gone almost eight years. I will always admire how she never stopped trying to do for herself even when the time had long arrived to let others do for her. At the end she moved slowly, saw poorly, and took so many medications that I often lost count.

In my mind and heart, though, she will always be young, vibrant, beautiful, and a shining example of what a Mother should be.

 

Shavuot: A Perfect Example of Ancient “Reform” Judaism

One of the great examples of Reform or Progressive Jewish thinking–some 2000 years before there was anything called Reform Judaism– regards the Festival of Shavuot.
In the Torah, Shavuot was strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of both the first summer fruits and the barley harvest. Our ingenious Rabbinic Sages reformed (and I use that word purposely) the festival into the anniversary of when 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 was 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 so 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 imagine, the rabbis of the Talmudic period took a fading 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 or tenth grade students celebrate Confirmation.
The example of what our ancient Sages did with Shavuot should continue to inspire our thinking as Reform or Liberal 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–not at odds–with the process by which our Rabbinic Sages reformed biblicalJudaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.

Why Israel Is So Special

As Israel celebrates its 66th year of independence, my mind replays a scene that could easily happen again today.
It was November 1975. The United Nations had just passed a horrific resolution condemning Zionism–-the very idea that there should be a Jewish State–as racism. Shocked, I knocked on the doors of one Christian pastor in our city after another asking for support.
Some were sympathetic, but I shall never forget one pastor’s response. “Steve,” he said, “you’ve taught me a lot about Judaism, and I consider you a friend. But I have neither interest in nor sympathy for Zionism.”
Today, on the land that made up the Turkish Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, twenty-two Arab/Islamic peoples have realized their hopes for independent nationhood. Jews also lived in the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. Why does the world begrudge one tiny sliver of land for Jewish national aspirations when twenty-two Islamic nations have realized the same dream?
After the Holocaust, the world realized that had there been an Israel to which Jews could flee, Hitler never could have destroyed two-thirds of European Jewry. In other words had there been an Israel when Hitler came to power, there would not have been a Holocaust!
And so the United Nations voted to create two small states: One Arab and one Jewish. The tiny piece of land designated as the Jewish homeland was mostly desert, but no matter. We Jews rejoiced that our two-thousand-year-old hope for nationhood was finally a reality.
But the Arab world had other plans and vowed to drive the new Jewish nation into the sea. Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League, boasted that the rivers would flow with Jewish blood. “This will be a war,” he exulted, “like the Mongolian massacres, like the crusades.”
It turned out he was wrong. The Jewish nation, against overwhelming odds, did manage to establish itself, but the Arab dream to wipe her off the map persists to this day. If ever there will be peace, the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular must renounce this dream.
We cannot deny, nor should we, that the creation of Israel caused loss and displacement for many Palestinian Arabs. I hope that reality will always sober us. I hope Israel will make every reasonable effort to reach a peaceful accord, an accord that allows both the Jewish State of Israel and an Islamic/Christian Palestine to live side by side in mutual harmony.
When Palestinian spokespeople tell us that so many of their kinsmen lost their land when Israel came to be, they are correct. But they do not tell us that roughly the same number of Jews fled for their lives to Israel from political, economic, religious and physical persecution in Arab lands.
The difference, of course⎯and it is a crucial difference⎯is that Israel absorbed refugees from Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Morocco and integrated them into Israeli society by providing them with language training, job skills, and housing. The Arab world, despite economic capabilities that dwarf those of all the Jews in the world, chose to maintain Palestinian refugees in squalid camps, which for sixty-six years have been breeding grounds for hatred of Israel and terrorism.
I do not believe that supporting Israel means that we should relinquish the right to criticize policies of Israel’s that we think is wrong. But none of us should allow our criticism to provide aid and political ammunition for those–Jews and non–Jews alike⎯who seek to destroy the Jewish State.
We must never forget that if the Arab states renounce terror, lay down their arms, and acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, there will be peace. But if Israel lays down its arms or relaxes its vigilance, there will be no Israel. I count myself among those who would consider “no Israel” a tragedy the world should spare no effort to prevent.

Book Excerpt: The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will –between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire
people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay. Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.

“A Sneak Peek: Chapter Summaries of What’s in it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives”

Below you will find descriptions of the chapters in my forthcoming book. Of course I hope these description will make you eager to read the entire work   As I am finishing up my writing, I want to also ask my readers:  Is there anything missing; anything you think should be included in this book that I may have left out. I consider your feedback very important and will carefully consider any suggestions.
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Creation – Neither science nor fairy tale, the Story of Creation in Genesis reveals the overarching hope of biblical thought:  That life has purpose and meaning, and for better or worse, we human beings are in charge of, and responsible for, this earth.  Each of us participates in creation when we use our talents to help in some way create a more just, caring and compassionate society.

Eden – Many think of the Story of Eden as “The Fall of Man.”  We might better think of it as the “Elevation of Humanity.”  Eve, rather than being the villain that much of religious history has made of her, is the true hero of the story because she chooses a limited life of purpose and meaning in the real world over an endless existence of indolence in the Garden.

Cain and Abel — Nobel laureate John Steinbeck considers Cain and Abel, “the symbol story of the human soul” because it is the story of every one of us. It is about rejection – which all of us have faced – and how we deal with it.  And Yes!  If this world is ever going to work, we must be our brothers and sisters’ keeper.

Noah and The Flood — Many accounts of a deluge emerge from various cultures of the ancient near east.  The biblical flood story is unique in two important ways:  Only in the Bible does the flood occur because of humanity’s moral failure. Only in the Bible is the hero chosen not for capriciousness, but for his righteousness.

Babel – The brief account of the Tower of Babel is analogous to “the last straw” in God’s attempt to persuade humanity as a whole, to create a just, caring and compassionate society. Also, I am often asked: “Wouldn’t it be great if there were just one religious outlook?”  No!  The Tower of Babel teaches us that God created diversity, and the world is better off because of it.

Abraham – After three attempts at persuading humanity to create a just, caring and compassionate society (in Eden; pre- and post-flood Eden), the Eternal One chooses Abram as a Covenantal Partner. He then launches a new vehicle for humanity to understand God’s desires.  Now, one family and its descendants will become an instrument to teach the world the ideals and values we all hold dear.

Jacob – A punk kid who extorts the precious birthright from his brother and misrepresents himself before his blind father grows through many trials to emerge as a responsible partner in God’s Covenant. If we understand the relationship between the crimes of Jacob’s youth and the tribulations he endured because of them, his journey can transform our lives, as well.

Joseph – Like his father, Joseph transforms from a spoiled, selfish brat into a leader whose bold policies saved the biblical world from famine.  His story and the parallel story of his brother Judah, are stories of suffering, growth and forgiveness.  The lessons they learn through bitter experience can inspire us as we seek meaning and purpose in our lives.

Slavery – “A new king arose who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  In this verse, we have the paradigm of all Jewish history.  A pattern has repeated itself in almost every country where Jews have lived.  It is a fitting starting point for our people’s journey from the degradation of bondage to the dignity of a free people, and it has a universal message.

Six Women Heroes – Moses is the hero of the Exodus and hands-down the most important figure in the Bible and all Jewish thought.  Nevertheless, Moses would not have gotten as far as uttering, “Let my people go…” (Exodus 7:16) before Pharaoh were it not for six women.  If we look closely, we find many biblical examples in which women play pivotal roles in biblical narratives, while the male protagonist is often clueless by comparison. The recurring biblical theme of the woman who “gets it,” while the man does not, was initiated by Adam and Eve.  This theme offers strong testimony that the Bible affirms and exalts the power and role of women.

Moses and the Call to Leadership – Why God Chose Moses.  The Bible gives us hints, but for the rabbis, the partnership was based on a careful examination by God of Moses’ character.  This chapter explores the rabbinic view of why God chose Moses, and the implications of that choice for our lives today.  Like Moses, we each have a destiny, if we choose, as Moses eventually did, to embrace it.

God’s Role in the Exodus — If God represents goodness and kindness, why does God “harden Pharaoh’s heart?”   To understand the story of the Exodus, we must see it as a war between God and the pagan deity, Pharaoh.  Pharaoh, on the one hand, represented the prevailing pagan value system. One worshipped him by building bigger and bigger monuments to his glory in the hope that he would use his perceived powers to protect his followers.  God represented the values of the Covenant made with Abraham: the values of justice caring and compassion.  These divergent value systems cannot coexist, and the Exodus represents a struggle to the finish between them.  The story and the Passover celebrations based on that, bid us to ask which set of values we choose for ourselves: a life of self-centered greed, or a life of caring, concern and service to others.

Crossing the Sea – In the Hebrew Bible’s most dramatic miracle, God splits the Red Sea allowing the children of Israel to cross on dry ground.  The Egyptians follow and are drowned when the Almighty orders the seawaters to cover them.  The Children of Israel are now free, but not free to be like everyone else.  The ancient Hebrews were set free in order to march on to Sinai to renew the Covenant God made with Abraham. It is a Covenant whose basic values are accessible to everyone, whether he or she is Jewish, or not. One of the issues the drowning of the Egyptians addresses is how we should react to the downfall of our enemy.

A Visit from Jethro –Jethro’s visit to Moses and the Israelites marks, perhaps, the first management tutorial in recorded literature.  Moses, Jethro warns, risks burnout unless he develops a plan to delegate authority.  Moses heeds Jethro’s advice, and we can benefit from it at well.

Standing at Sinai – This chapter examines different perspectives of God’s revelation at Sinai.  What might have happened during the encounter that transformed God’s people from a band of refugees from slavery into a people covenanted for all time to the service of the Almighty?  We shall look at a number of Midrashim that offer contradictory viewpoints on what might have occurred at Sinai and ask the more important question: what do these different points of view teach us today?

The Golden Calf – Almost as soon as Israel agrees to the Covenant with God, they break faith in the worst way imaginable by worshipping a golden calf.  Certainly, we do not build idols and bow down to them today, yet the story of the golden calf still speaks to our human condition.  Do we choose the path of generosity, kindness and the quest to make a better world, or to find our own security and satisfaction at the expense of others?

The Spies — In the second year of the Israelites desert journey Moses sends out twelve spies to report on the land God has promised them.  Ten of the spies come back and say the land is unconquerable.  Two, though, Joshua and Caleb demur and say we need to have faith and confidence in God’s promise.  The chapter explores what we can learn from this story.

The Waters’ of Meribah — For nearly forty years Moses has been God’s faithful servant.  He slips up once – in what seems like a minor way—by hitting a rock to give drink to the thirsty people instead of asking the rock to brings forth water in God’s name.  God punishes Moses by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land.  Is this fair?  Perhaps not, but the lesson of the story is vital to each one of us.

What If I Don’t Believe in God? — As discussed throughout the book, the Hebrew Bible assumes the existence of God, who wants human beings to establish a just, caring and compassionate society.  The simple fact is not everyone believes in such a God.  This chapter discusses how the ideals and values of the Journey can speak effectively and meaningfully even to those who do not believe in God.

Conclusion— This summary of the journey and its meanings reviews and elaborate on the vital lessons we learn from the Genesis’ story of creation to the edge of the Promised Land where Moses’ dies on Mount Nebo.  Moses is the Hebrew Bible’s pre-eminent figure, but he dies with his dreams unfulfilled.  Like Moses, most of us leave this earth with –despite our accomplishments – dreams unfulfilled.  The lesson we learn is that each of us should do the best we can for as long as we can, to make the world in some way, better.  Part of our task is to inspire and mentor others to continue the work.