Repent and Reprieve

D’var Torah given at Minyan Masorti, Germantown Jewish Centre, September 30, 2017.

On July 23, my uncle and aunt were burned to death in a house fire. Minutes after I received the news, the haunting words from Unetaneh Tokef came to mind:

“Who shall live and who shall die. . . . Who shall perish by fire and who by water.”

In that moment, the words of the Unetaneh Tokef became real. I wondered if what it said were true. Had God imposed judgment on them? My uncle and aunt had lived 98 years. They had survived all of their siblings and friends, weathered illnesses, yet died in a most unnatural way.

Contemporary rabbis and scholars wrestle with this prayer. They question its view of divine judgment and punishment. As our rabbi emeritus Leonard Gordon writes in our Machzor, “We are not praying to be spared an ending in death. We are not even asking that death be postponed. Rather, after reminding ourselves relentlessly of the many ways that life might end, we tell ourselves that the way to cope with ultimate vulnerability is through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. Our goal is not security, but a life of meaning that recognizes our vulnerability but rises beyond it.”   (Mahzor Lev Shalom,, page 315).

After my family members died by fire, Unetaneh Tokef echoed in my ears. I was called to study this text, to grapple with their death. I found Unetaneh Tokef a text to study, if not embrace.

In part, the Unetaneh Tokef draws from theology of Ezekiel 18.

Ezekiel speaks with clarity and precision, connecting righteousness to life and wickedness to death.

Verse 20: The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone.

Verse 23: Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?—says the LORD, GOD. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live.

Verse 31: Cast away all the transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die, O House of Israel. For it is not My desire that anyone shall die—declares the LORD GOD. Repent, therefore, and live!

The theology of Ezekiel is severe. It addresses the core of Unetaneh Tokef: Straighten up! Life is fragile. We are not worthy, but we can try to repent. God, be gentle in your judgment.

What we seek this Day of Atonement is not a pardon, but a reprieve—a stay of execution.

Rabbi and psychotherapist Ruth Durchslag explains:

“We are reminded that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah—repentance, prayer and charity—can transform the harshness of God’s decree. Changing our ways may gain us a few more precious hours, a few more days or a few more years.” (Who by Fire, Who by Water, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, editor, Jewish Lights, 2010,, page 188).

I would pose these questions:

  1. Is reprieve only about lengthening our time on earth or it is about living the way we choose and living according to our values?
  2. Are we seeking reprieve from death or reprieve from the expectations of others and the expectations we have for ourselves?

Durchslag’s is a theology of praying for reprieve—a reprieve from fate or expectations, but nonetheless it is a reprieve for life in the next year. But reprieve does not answer the way my uncle and aunt died. So I needed to continue my study.


Writing in the Daily Beast on September 20, 2017 Jay Michaelson saw the Unetaneh Tokef in the context of its times. It was composed in the era of the Crusades, a time “in which the oppression of Jews was as unpredictable and violent as the prayer’s text suggests.” Unetaneh Tokefreflects the religious yearnings of an oppressed people.”

Michaelson writes that “the High Holiday liturgy reflects the hardship of oppression and exile. The endless petitions for forgiveness . . . are not simply remnants of a bygone theological era, in which God was understood as a kind of giant puppet-master pulling the strings of fate. Rather, that theology is itself the product of centuries of Jewish suffering and marginalization.”

(Jay Michaelson,, adapted).

If Unetaneh Tokef is a prayer that echoes the cries of an oppressed people, how does our understanding of “who by fire, who by water. . . .” change?

It’s not about the fire and the water—it is about the trauma that comes from the uncertainty, the fragility of life when we live under oppression. When a people is oppressed, their fate is not in their own hands, but rather in those of their oppressor. Unetaneh Tokef flips the script and takes this fate out of the hands of the oppressor, and places it into God’s hands.

In God’s hand, even in those horrible fates (death by fire, drowning, plague, sword, beast. . . ), we find a kind of freedom—since, even at the worst of times, our lives—our fates—are in the hands not of those who mean us harm, but in those of the God of our Salvation.

Here is the problem of Unetaneh Tokef. Jews in America do not live under oppression. This theology does not apply to us, and by extension, to my Uncle and Aunt.

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah on Teshuvah, Chapter 7, gives us a view more hopeful than the text of Unetaneh Tokef. Maimonides informs us that we have agency at all times of the year, not just on the High Holidays.

Maimonides teaches that we have the ability to become the masters of our own Teshuvah, our repentance.

Quoting from Teshuvah, Chapter 7:

  1. Since free choice is granted to all men as explained, a person should always strive to do Teshuvah and to confess verbally for his sins, striving to cleanse his hands from sin in order that he may die as a Baal-Teshuvah—a Master of his own Repentance—and merit the life of the world to come.
  2. A person should always view himself as leaning towards death, with the possibility that he might die at any time. Thus, he may be found as a sinner.

Therefore, one should always repent for his sins immediately and should not say: “When I will repent,” for perhaps he will die before he grows older. This was implied by the wise counsel given by Solomon [Ecclesiastes 9:8]: “At all times, your clothes should be white.”


Today, on Yom Kippur, many of us stand in white.

Maimonides says that life is fragile, unpredictable, any day could be our last.  Repent every day, to temper the severity of God’s decree every day.

For my Uncle and Aunt, Maimonides worked for the way they lived their lives, through the theology of living Tefillah, Teshuvah, and Tzedakah. Not being a direct descendant, I could observe the relationships they had with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

I recognized that their death by fire not as punishment, but as Korban—Their souls were pure, ready to go up to heaven. By dying together, they were reprieved from the pain of widowhood. They had become Baalei Teshuvah — Masters of their own Repentance—in the way Maimonides envisioned it. They took that daily opportunity to repent.

Unetaneh Tokef is a shake-up call. A call to reassess, a call to turn around our lives. Life can change in a moment. The great challenge is how to be prepared.



The fall of Nationalist China as understood 70 years later


Back in the 1960’s, I watched TV shows recounting the fall of Nationalist China. The bold voice of Walter Cronkite told how Peiping, Nanking, Shanghai and Canton (1950’s spellings) surrendered to the Communists in succession in 1949, until the refugee government retreated to Formosa (now called Taiwan).

I never understood how an American ally could collapse so quickly; nor did I understand the power of the China lobby and its successful efforts to protect Taiwan and prevent United States recognition of the Communist government for more than a decade.

Veteran foreign correspondent Kevin Peraino tells how it happened in his upcoming book A Force So Swift, to be released in September by Crown/Penguin Random House.

China emerged from World War II victorious. The strength of the Nationalist government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was superficial. Weakened by corruption, primitive infrastructure, inadequate military equipment, and an unstable economy, the Nationalists were no match for the rival Communists. The Communists were tightly disciplined, supported by the rural masses, and ideologically driven,


From 1945 through 1948, the United States pressured the Nationalists and Communists to join a coalition government. The Nationalists refused. American military aid failed to get the Nationalists into shape to battle the Communists.

Finally, in 1949, the United States gave up on the Nationalists, reduced aid, and stood by while the Nationalists collapsed.

Peraino (photo on left) spotlights three key figures in the fall of China.

(1) Secretary of State Dean Acheson. He was a realist. He understood that the Communists were going to win. He wanted to end American support for the Nationalists, maintain some American influence in China, and begin a relationship with the future Communist rulers.

(2) Congressman Walter Judd. A former medical missionary in China, Judd was elected as a Republican to Congress from Minnesota. He was no isolationist. He campaigned with then Vice President Harry Truman in the midwest in support of the proposed United Nations. Judd thought that because of racism, the United States focused on saving post-war Western Europe, consigning China to a low priority. He clashed with Truman and Acheson, organizing support for the Nationalists in the late 1940s and throughout the Cold War.

(3) Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The American educated and politically savvy wife of the Generalissimo, Madame Chiang organized support in United States for the Nationalists, and drove the agenda of the right wing during the early years of the Cold War. Her family ran the Chinese government and its finances as a privately held corporation.

Peraino tells a good story, using enough detail to inform without overwhelming the reader. This book is highly recommended for fans of the Cold War.


Christopher Simpson’s prequel to the Holocaust will shake you up


Open Road Integrated Media has re-issued Christopher Simpson’s The Splendid Blonde Beast. the story how big law and big finance set up the conditions leading to the Holocaust. This book is a prequel to Simpson’s pathbreaking book Blowback which explains how Nazi war criminals popped up all over South America, Canada and the United States.

images-4Simpson, professor of journalism at American University, is not a neutral reporter. He is an advocate. By exposing the relationships between American banks and investment houses, Wall Street law firms, American industrialists and their German counterparts, he makes his case.

Simpson leaves me with three lessons:

  • The five million non-Jews who died in the Holocaust were forced laborers from the occupied lands and prisoners of war. With full cooperation from the SS and the Nazi killing machine, these workers were employed in German factories. They were worked and starved to death and died from disease. They lived in private concentration camps run by their employers.
  • Nazi Germany lasted as long as it did because of forced labor.   Though German men were in the military, and despite heavy bombing by the Allies, German factory production remained high and grew during World War II. Forced labor kept Germany going.
  • During the 1960’s, Radio Moscow denounced the “West German revenge seekers.” Radio Moscow was revealing what most Americans did not know. The rise of post- war Germany was due in part to restoration of its business and industrial leadership.   Quickly after the surrender of Germany, the U.S. State Department and intelligence elites (think John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, and his brother Allen Dulles, head of the Central Intelligence Agency under Eisenhower and Kennedy) pumped up German industry, brought Nazi-era business leaders back to power, and suspended de-Nazification and prosecution of war criminals. They jump started West Germany as an anti-Soviet bulwark.

The Beautiful Blond Beast will shake you up.


The Road to Camelot: Overcoming the religious issue.

May 29 will be the 100th birthday of President John F. Kennedy. Our 35th President is remembered today for his personal style (drop dead handsome) and his inspiration to the nation (“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”).


However, his biggest achievement was breaking through the wall of religious prejudice. Never before and never since, has a Roman Catholic been elected President.

Thomas Oliphant (Boston Globe national correspondent) and Curtis Wilkie (journalism professor at the University of Mississippi and former Boston Globe national reporter) have written an enjoyable account of JFK’s five year quest for the Presidency.

The Road to Camelot (Simon and Schuster) covers JFK’s bid for the 1956 Vice Presidential nomination, the 1960 primaries and convention, the campaign against Richard Nixon, and the effort to build the Black vote. The book is rich in political lore–campaign strategy, power struggles within the party, the experts, the journalists, the bosses and the activists


Thomas Oliphant

Most significant in the 1960 election was the religious issue. In less tolerant times, Kennedy had to defeat the perception that conservative Protestants would never vote for a Catholic. To reassure Protestants, JFK emphasized his commitment to separation of church and state. Meanwhile, he worked to boost the urban Catholic vote.


curtis-wilkie-1708144Curtis Wilkie

On election day, JFK won the popular vote by 112,000 votes. He won the electoral vote by 303 to 219. After examining polls taken in 1960, reviewing press reports, and comparing statistics from previous elections, Oliphant and Wilkie conclude that anti-Catholic bias probably reduced JFK’s popular vote. However, strong Catholic support helped him win several battleground states and raised his electoral vote. As we learned in 2016, the electoral vote counts.

Happy 100th birthday, JFK.


Klaus Barbie: A Cold War chiller. A scandal which must not be forgotten.

Open Road Integrated Media has reissued a Cold War chiller, “Klaus Barbie” by Tom Bower. First issued in 1984, the book tells the story of Gestapo commander Klaus Barbie, who lead the bloody repression of Lyon, France during the World War II. Bower is a vivid writer. He gives just enough detail to explain history and tell a thrilling story, without overpowering the reader with information.

34221469.jpgMost disturbing is Barbie’s life after World War II. Recruited by American intelligence services , Barbie spent his immediate postwar years gathering information on Communist and Soviet elements in the American occupation zone of Germany. Meanwhile, Barbie was near the top of France’s most wanted list of war criminals. After he became too hot to handle and too difficult to hide, the American intelligence services arranged for him to travel to South America via a “rat line” run by a Croatian priest stationed in Rome. In South America, he joined some of the most notorious Nazis to survive World War II. Barbie settled in Bolivia where he entered business and enjoyed protection from the government.

The heroes of the book are Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, the French Nazi-hunters, who located Barbie and pressured France and Germany to seek extradition of Barbie from Bolivia. In 1987, Barbie was convicted by a French court. Barbie, known as “The Butcher of Lyon, died in prison in 1991 at the age of 77.

The recruitment of ex-Nazis by American intelligence is a scandal which must not be forgotten.


All The Rivers: Lust, sweat and a stern political warning


Israeli novelist Dorit Rabinyan has written a steamy novel about life in Manhattan a year after 911. Separate from the sweat and from under the blankets emerges a stern political warning.

All The Rivers (Random House, translated by Jessica Cohen) is the story of two lovers in their late twenties. Liat is a graduate student living in Manhattan. Hilmi is an artist living in Brooklyn. They are both 28 years old. She is from Israel. He is from the West Bank. Their families lives 40 miles apart. Forbidden love. Forbidden politics. The book has been banned from the Israeli school system.

Liat is in lust, but she knows that the affair will go nowhere. She is scheduled to return to Israel in May 2003. Her family will never accept Hilmi. Liat describes the disparaging views some Israelis hold of Arabs. She speaks a couple of times a week by telephone to her parents and sister. She conceals Hilmi from them. Hilmi resents being a nonperson to her family.

Rabinyan details the Manhattan scene, the food lives and social experiences of the upscale late-20’s set. She gives optimistic snapshots of life in Tel Aviv and the West Bank.


Rabinyan has a sobering message. As I see it, she is saying that the “Two State Solution” (separate and independent Jewish and Palestinian states, existing side by side) cannot work. The two peoples are too interconnected. Both peoples love the same land. Arabs displaced in the 1948 war, are still attached to their ancestral houses and towns. Arabs and Jews have the same historic sites. Arabs want to visit the beaches on the Mediterranean. Israel needs Arab labor and Arabs need jobs.

Rabinyan never states it, but she implies that a single secular democratic state is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This book is too hot to handle for many audiences. If the book is banned, it must be goodnetgalley_challenge_2015pro_readerfavorited_reviewsreviews_50

Point of No Return. An ever timely war novel by Martha Gellhorn.


In Pete Hamill’s novel, Tabloid City, a young newspaper reporter enters the bathroom of his love interest, herself an aspiring journalist turned bartender.

The reporter stares “at a framed browning photograph of a blonde woman.  Eyes that miss nothing.  From the thirties, maybe?  Her grandmother, may be?”

The reporter returns to his love interest.

Reporter:  “The woman in the bathroom, who is she?”

Love interest:  “My hero.  Martha Gellhorn.  She’s in the bathroom so I’ll see her every morning.  And night.”

Reporter:  “She was married to Hemingway, right?”

Love interest:  “–Wrong.  He was married to Martha Gellhorn.  As a journalist, Hemingway wouldn’t make a pimple on her . . . .”


Open Road Integrated Media has reissued Martha Gellhorn’s 1948 novel, Point of No Return. It is the story of a unit of American troops in Luxembourg and Belgium, from the time of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944) to the surrender of Germany (May 1945).

Gellhorn (1908-1998) was a skilled war correspondent.  She engages the reader in the mud of the forests, the boredom and the hopes of the troops, the carnage of battle, and finally the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp.

Central to the story is the developing relationship between Lieutenant Colonel John Dawson Smithers, product of small town Georgia, and his driver, Jacob Levy, a secular Jew from St. Louis (Gellhorn’s hometown).

Levy, who looks like a Hollywood star, does not present as Jewish, but everyone knows that he is.  As the book proceeds, Levy begins to understand his Jewishness.  Meanwhile, Smithers learns to put aside his anti-Semitic attitudes, bond with Levy, and finally sticks up for him when Levy experiences major injuries and even more serious legal difficulties.

Gellhorn was a superb journalist.  If you want to know what World War II was really about, read this book.