Founders Day Address
February 24, 2002
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion,
B. Weisberg, Professor of Bible and Semitic Languages, HUC-JIR
President Ellenson, Dean Ehrlich, Ms. (Linda) Brodsky (representing
the UAHC), Mr. Alvin Lipson (representing the Board of Governors),
Chancellor Gottschalk, esteemed classmates and colleagues, beloved
families and friends:
At this period of the year in the Jewish calendar, we find ourselves
among three important markers, or points of observance, each of
which has to do with an offering to the Sanctuary. We refer to Shabbat
Shekalim, Purim and Parashat Ki Tisa. On each of these occasions,
the theme of donating a half shekel prevails.
The first of these dates, Parashat Shekalim- commemorates an ancient
custom that began during the desert sojourn of the Israelites. At
the wilderness Tabernacle, and later at the Temple of Jerusalem,
the call for the payment of the tax of half a shekel by every adult
was announced on the first day of the month of Adar. As a reminder
of this duty the passage from Exodus 30:11-16 was read on the Sabbath
Tomorrow night is the festival of Purim. We celebrate the courage
and self-sacrifice of Queen Esther and Mordecai, and the salvation
of the Jewish people. The Megillah records how "The people enjoyed
light and gladness, joy and exultation" and may we, too, merit this
state of being.
In our day it is customary on Purim to contribute a symbolic sum-
the equivalent of a half shekel - (3 half-dollar coins) to charity.
In addition, we give "Gifts to the Poor," a Mitzvah with great significance
Finally, this coming Shabbat, we reread the passage from Exodus
that contains the payment of the half-shekel as an offering to the
And while reflecting on these important matters and our tradition
of giving the Shekalim, I fell deeply into a most mysterious dream
that might better be called a reverie.
It appeared to me that I was looking at an ancient shekel coin
from my collection. Strangely, the shekel that was lying upon the
desk in my study, stood up on its edge, turned its head towards
me, opened its mouth, and in a soft silvery sound, gave me the following
account of its life and adventures:
The time was 3,300 years ago in the Bronze Age of the ancient Mediterranean
world. The scenery was bucolic and peaceful, with the pastoral beauty
of an ancient landscape. I was born, so I was told, on the side
of a mountain, near a little village in Macedonia. Some useful implements
were employed as tools, and I was extracted from a mine up in the
hills. Then I made a voyage to Israel in an ingot, in a convoy of
a Captain named Ben Yehuda. Soon after my arrival, I was taken out
of my Macedonian ingot. I was refined, naturalized and put into
an Israelite mode.
Arrayed in this fashionable display, I found in myself a wonderful
inclination to ramble and visit all parts of the new surroundings
into which I was brought. The people very much favored my beautiful
character, and shifted me so fast from hand to hand, that before
I was five years old, I had traveled into almost every corner of
the populous Israelite camp.
Decades went by and people began using a new metal, called iron.
The Israelites crossed the Jordan river and now being in the Promised
Land, besieged the ancient walled city of Jericho. But not long
thereafter, to my unspeakable grief, I fell into the hands of a
miserly old fellow named Achan b. Karmi, near Jericho. He stashed
me away in an antique treasure chest, where I found a large number
of fellows like myself, who were trapped in the same prison. The
only exercise we got was to be taken out every morning and counted
over, in the secrecy of his tent. It was a crisis of faith for me,
for I had never before experienced such cruel treatment. But I never
lost the hope that we would be redeemed. After an imprisonment lasting
I don't know how long, we heard somebody knocking on our prison
and breaking it open with a hammer. This we found was a lieutenant
in Joshua's army, who mustered us out that very day. My faith that
we would once again enjoy our freedom was rewarded!
What the fate of my companions was I do not know; I believe they
were sent off to reside in the Tent of Meeting, in the Israelite
camp. But as for myself, I was somehow smuggled away, and sent to
a nearby inn for a keg of beer. The innkeeper sent me to a lady
who compounded medicines. She gave me to a butcher, the butcher
to a brewer, and the brewer to his wife, who made a present of me
to a Levite serving a local high place. In this fashion, I made
my way merrily through the world; for, as I told you before, we
shekels love nothing so much as traveling.
I thus rambled from pocket to pocket until I was used to purchase
the services of a scribe who spent long hours chiseling ancient
alphabetic characters on a stele, or monument, at Tel Dan. The stele,
which was known in our day as the Beit David Inscription, was written
in the ninth century BCE and was destined to be discovered by archaeologists
from a well-known Seminary millennia later.
Many, many years elapsed and numerous historical events in the
Northern Kingdom of Israel, and then in the Southern Kingdom of
Judea, transpired. As for the occurrences reported in the Hebrew
Bible I am in position to convey to you their essential historical
truthfulness and accuracy, having experienced them in person myself.
A weighty friend of mine named Mr. Minah, told me that some of the
scholars of your period, called minimalists, deny these accounts.
This is not true. All these biblical events occurred, more or less
in the form in which they were passed down by the tradition.
But I need to tell you about an important development in my personality
that took place some time later. Early gem-cutters after a period
of experimentation, invented the minting of coins, eventually made
from dies. The result of this was an excellence in an art form that
has hardly been duplicated- and I was transformed from an ingot
into a coin!
I must pass over many other adventures of less moment, and hasten
to that major turning point in the history of Israel which could
very well be termed the greatest catastrophe of our ancient history,
or indeed of all our history. The year was 587 BCE. I speak of the
invasion of the Babylonians, the dismantling of the Judean State,
the destruction of Jerusalem and the devastation of the Temple.
In the midst of this general calamity, when everybody thought our
misfortune irretrievable, and our case desperate, I was seized by
a young man who had not lost hope in the continued existence of
the Israelite people. He was escaping the wreckage and he determined
to join his fellows in their long trek to Babylon.
Being now of great value and antiquity, I was rather looked upon
as a medallion than an ordinary coin; which is why I was taken out
of ordinary circulation and placed in what you in your modern times
would call a museum.
From this time and for many long centuries, I went into a state
of dormancy, what you might think of as hibernation, if we were
speaking of animals instead of shekels. Now if you will recall,
I told you how much I enjoyed traveling and being in the thick of
things. Therefore you can imagine my state of mind when, though
people treated me with a great deal of reverence and respect as
due to my age and status, they no longer thought of me as a valuable
component of their everyday life. To be honest, if it were not for
what I had learned from my biblical friends, my morale would have
sunk to an all-time low.
Now please allow me to share with you the secret that saved my
life: it is that faith in the biblical God can pull us through any
crisis. True, it would be too great a test of my mettle to ask me
to define "biblical faith." But I do know in my heart what it is
to believe, and this belief saved me.
What is "biblical faith"? - I put this question to my fellow-travelers
and I learned that there are as many definitions as coins in a purse.
Understanding of varies from individual to individual and faith
can be achieved through many methods. God is our Creator who rules
Dear friends! We now leave our adventurous friend in his state
of dormancy as we reflect on events of the present time-- but we
will hear from him again.
A Chinese philosopher once prayed he not be "condemned to live
in interesting times"
Like it or not, you and I are living in interesting times.
In the dark years before and during World War II, lights were being
snuffed out in Europe. Nevertheless, voices of moderation and hope
could be heard. One of these voices was that of a young scholar
who was rescued from the fiery furnace of Europe by President Julian
Morgenstern and brought to Cincinnati. In a 1943 issue of The
Hebrew Union College Bulletin, Abraham Joshua Heschel published
an expanded form of an article entitled "The Meaning of This Hour"
which was originally delivered in March 1938 at a conference of
Quaker Leaders in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. This meaningful article
with its encouraging message was then republished in Heschel's 1954
volume, Man's Quest
for God. Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (NY: Scribner's,
It seems to me that the title of this article, "The Meaning of
this Hour" is apropos to our situation today.
What is the meaning of this hour for the United States and the
world? What is the meaning of this hour for Israel and the Middle
East? What is the meaning for Reform Judaism, HUC and our class?
On a Tuesday last Fall, which started out in Cincinnati as a morning
at the polls, and an occasion for buying Ophra a birthday gift,
I turned on the radio at 9:45 and the world was changed for me-
and for all of us- forever.
In his historic letter of September 28, 2001, Rabbi David Ellenson,
President, HUC-JIR, captured very well the meaning of that morning
for all of us. He wrote:
"Dear HUC-JIR Family and Friends:
The world as we know it has been irrevocably transformed by the
horrific events of September 11th. For the rest of our lives, that
morning where unspeakable evil and terror were unleashed upon humanity
will provide a landmark whereby we will date and measure our lives.
There are large issues of politics and public policy that surely
must be addressed, and the responsibility an institution such as
ours must now confront as it trains Jewish leaders demands serious
and thoughtful dialogue."
What is the meaning of this hour for Israel and the Middle East?
Many years ago, I received an advertisement from an art gallery
in Haifa for a series of serigraphs by an artist named Heinz Seelig
entitled Gates of Jerusalem.
The ad highlighted two scenes, the Golden Gate and the New Gate.
There was a beautiful vista that included Arab and Jewish children
playing together and adults mingling at the New Gate, and there
were flocks of sheep and lambs lying together at the Golden Gate
under the watchful eye of a shepherd, beneath a placid sky.
As in biblical times, let us say: 'Let there be no quarrel between
me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are
people like brothers.' In the face of terror and brutality our faith
in this vision must never flag. This peaceful portrait is the meaning
of this hour for Israel to me.
The Lord of History has always placed Israel in predicaments. Israel's
destiny is to face difficult tasks with faith in God and hope that
Peace will come.
What is the meaning of this hour for our College and Movement?
On Founders Day we remember the visionary leadership of the past
as, with pride and joy, we salute the rabbis who shape the present
and future. We also recognize the essential role of the devoted
lay leader in all we have achieved and dream of achieving.The partnership
of religious leader and lay leader, together striving to meet the
changing needs of the Reform movement and the Jewish people, is
at the heart of the College-Institute's special mission.
Founders Day Ceremonies celebrate the vision of Rabbi Isaac Mayer
Wise, founder of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute in 1875 in
Cincinnati, and of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, founder of the Jewish
Institute of Religion in 1922 in New York.
Kaufman Kohler, Julian Morgenstern, Nelson Glueck, Alfred Gottschalk,
Sheldon Zimmerman, Norman Cohen and now David Ellenson are the ones
who have led the College- Institute not merely as builders of our
campuses, but as leaders who have instilled Faith in generations
How did they and our eminent Faculty achieve or biblical faith?
-I would suggest that by putting into practice their skills, for
the purpose of helping people without thought of reward, is
the way they achieved success. If I have studied only to improve
myself, that is commendable, but it cannot bring the rich harvest
of inner faith. But if I have studied in order to help others, I
have fulfilled the teaching of the Torah. This type of biblical
faith can ease our pain and loneliness, especially in a time of
emergency and crisis. True faith is not easy to achieve but one
can make the effort Another way of putting this thought is that
by performing mitzvot, or biblical commandments, especially those
bein Adam Le-Chaveiro (those between one person and another), one
shall achieve faith.
Thinking about the Shekalim, or generous donations that our ancestors
made towards the construction and maintenance of the desert Sanctuary
and then the Temple in Jerusalem, brings to mind the modern descendants
of these generous supporters. Our gratitude goes out to the many
good-hearted benefactors of this College and Movement, whose dedication
makes our enterprise possible.
Our friend the shekel is emerging from his dormant state and speaks
to us one last time.
What has happened to me in these modern times, I shall take some
other opportunity to relate. In the meantime, I shall repeat only
one adventure, as being very extraordinary.
Having undergone various vicissitudes in North Africa and Italy,
I was carried off on the Wings-of-an-Eagle to the United States,
where I was purchased by a professor of Ancient Something-or-Other.
Where do you suppose that fellow carried me almost at a run? - to
a place called "The Queen City." There a most astonishing thing
occurred. A month or so after I got to his home on Beechwood Avenue,
he was getting ready to take a Wings-of-an-Eagle journey to a Mediterranean
country called Israel.
While in his pocket, I butted up against C07342046B, a one-dollar
bill from the United States of America. Imagine my joy, when I said
hello to my new friend. He assured me that though he was made of
paper, he was legal tender for all debts, public and private. Then
I noticed something that made me even more joyful: clearly imprinted
on his surface was the motto, "In God we trust." It made me feel
so much at home in view of my vicissitudes and my travels, to see
reference on my friend to our Creator, Who rules with Justice and
metes out reward and punishment.
Then one more astonishing thing occurred. I met another new friend,
8020764375, a "New Israeli Shekel," so she informed me, issued by
the Bank of Israel! I was almost moved to tears when I discovered
that we shekels had come back into circulation! What a unique journey
it was, from ingot, to coin, to medallion, and now back to recognized
currency. Is this not something miraculous?
And now let me bring my tale to a close. I'm delighted that it
was my being on a scholar's desk, who was so smitten by my bright
and novel appearance that it gave inspiration for the Theme of a
Founders Day Address at Hebrew Union College - and the occasion
to honor you, the distinguished alumni of the class of '77!