One of my most precious possessions is a copy of the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin printed in Munich in 1946 on presses once used for Nazi propaganda. A Talmud printed on an erstwhile Nazi printing press is a powerful symbol of our privilege to use our time, our talent, and our material resources to help replant vibrant, progressive Jewish learning and living in the places where the Nazis tried to destroy them.
In this volume (page 40B), we find one of the most uplifting of rabbinic teachings whose message is particularly appropriate during the last month of the year, the month of Elul: Each of us should see ourselves as half innocent and half guilty, as though our good deeds and our bad deeds completely balance one another. If we then commit one good deed, we tip the scales in our favor.
What a marvelous metaphor! How wonderful a place our world would become if each of us went through life committed to making our next deed a good one.
My late and beloved Hebrew immersion teacher in Israel, Sarah, used to say, “It is not just a gift for Jews that we created a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the 40-day period (starting at the beginning of the month of Elul) leading up to it. It is a gift for all humanity."
Assigning a numerical value to each Hebrew letter, our sages deduced that the word Elul (aleph, one; lamed, 30, vav, 6 and lamed, again, 30) has the same numerical value, 67, as the Hebrew word binah (bet, two, yad, 10, nun, 50, and hay, five), which means, “understanding.” Elul, then, becomes a special month to seek self-understanding.
We each have talents and abilities, and our goal – particularly during this special month – is to ask ourselves, “What particular talents and abilities do I posses? How can I use them to benefit others?”
In the middle of the month of Elul, my wife Vickie and I will travel to Germany, as we did last year. We will spend the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) and two months thereafter speaking and teaching in synagogues, churches, and German schools. I will also offer two seminars at Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.
We go with the hope that we may spread knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of Jewish ideals and thought in a place that once tried to extirpate the practices, the wisdom, and, indeed, the very gene pool of our people.
Like my prized Talmud tractate, I was born in 1946. I hope our presence in Germany will represent the message that the Munich Talmud conveys. In a place that once was ravaged by hatred and destruction, may we testify to the vitality and relevance of Jewish life and thought.
When I was younger, I dreamed of doing more grandiose things, but I was not given the talent to cure cancer or bring about peace in the world. Still, I can help people from all backgrounds understand and appreciate the meaning of the Torah’s lessons and the wisdom of our Jewish heritage. By using these talents productively, I hope to tip the balance scales in my favor as I enter the new year and contribute in a small way to making the world a better place.