Exalting Our Power to Change

Below is the description of the seminar I shall offer for Rabbinical and Cantorial students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin on May 17, 2019. I hope they find it helpful.

 

Exalting Our Power to Change

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs D.Min, DD

 

“Where repentant sinners stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 34B)

 

תשובה – (Teshuvah) Repentance is one of the cardinal principals of Jewish thought. While our tradition calls upon Jews to be aware of our actions and regretful of our wrongdoings at all times, the Days of Awe, culminating in Yom Kippur, is a season when the primary focus of our lives shifts from day to day needs to an intense period of self-examination in which to confess our sins to the Eternal One and resolve to do better in the future.

My Ulpan (intensive Hebrew learning program) teacher in Jerusalem, Sarah Rotbard, of blessed memory once said: “It is not just a gift for Jews that we conceived of the concept of Yom Kippur, it is a gift for all humanity.”

Indeed, our power to grow through our mistakes and change for the better is one of the most hopeful and positive traits of men and women.

Together we shall explore the concept of Teshuvah through biblical narratives and rabbinic teachings. We shall then discuss how they can affect our own lives and the lives of those whom we teach and influence.

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.

 

 

My Vote for The Greatest Speech Ever

An End to The Charade

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph–so moved by Judah’s stirring appeal–reveals himself to his brothers. (Genesis 44:18-34)

“It is one of the greatest, most stirring addresses in all literature.” That is how my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s address to Joseph. Thank you, Mr. Ehrenworth. I know I was not a serious student in your class, but your explication of Judah’s speech has stayed with me my entire life. I did not realize it then, but you set in motion the process that inspired me to make the search for meaning in biblical narratives a driving force in my life.

Sir Walter Scott called Judah’s speech, “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language” (Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, P. 169).

We wonder though, why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin’s bag?

Many commentators suggest that Joseph’s sought revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut, z’l, in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, “Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284). However, if revenge was Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused.

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive. Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone. As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery.

With Joseph gone, Benjamin, the only other child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he too might become a slave in Egypt, and Jacob would once again lose his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake. If Benjamin does not return home safely, his father will die. This time Judah, who so callously inflicted the pain of the loss of Joseph on his father, will not let it happen again. In his speech, the longest one to one address in the Bible, he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin.

That is all Joseph–who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence–needs to hear to end the charade.

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].

Judah is now a true hero, worthy to emerge as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” derive from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past and live more positive, purposeful lives in the future.

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.