What Gives Meaning to a Bat or Bar Mitzvah?

Torah commentary: Shabbat Ahare Mot-Kedoshim 5775

What gives meaning to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? Is it a flawless presentation of the Torah and Haftarah readings? Is it a great party afterwards?

These questions were on my mind as I sat with Julia Madonick last week to discuss the timeless teachings from Leviticus 19 known as “The Holiness Code,” that she will read from the Torah as she becomes a Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat.

You do not have to be a farmer to have “a field.”

She will read of our obligation to “leave the corners of our field for the poor and the stranger.” She will read of the imperative to pay our workers promptly and fairly. She will also read that God forbids us to “curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind”, which she rightly understands to mean that we are not to knowingly take advantage of the vulnerabilities of others. She will conclude her reading with the classic teaching, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

My hope for the long-term impact of Julia’s Bat Mitzvah is the same as my hope for every student that I have had the privilege to teach over the last 42 years. I hope that her understanding of her Torah portion will continue to grow with her as her intellectual and spiritual capabilities continue to expand and mature.

I am proud that Julia is “leaving the corners of her field” by teaching her passion for dance with children less privileged than she.

A Commitment to Redress Society’s Ills

I pray that the commandment to pay workers promptly and fairly will always resonate with her in a practical way and that she will appreciate the disgraceful reality that in our country there are CEO’s who earn more in an hour than some of their workers earn in a year. Such a discrepancy is the antithesis of the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

When the Torah teaches of God’s concern for the “widow, the poor and the stranger,” the text cries out to us that decent health care, wages, educational opportunities, housing and nutrition should be available to all of God’s children, not just those born to privilege or blessed with the ability and good fortune to pay huge sums for these things.

The Awesome Power—for Good or Ill—in Our Ability to Communicate

Julia will also teach, “You shall not go about as a gossip.” There is awesome potential in our ability to communicate. Our words can uplift and exalt or denigrate and cause pain. How we use this power is up to us, but the Torah is clear in its instruction.

What gives meaning to a Bat Mitzvah? It is not so much the chanting of Torah but the meaning of Torah for today! I pray that the vital religious lessons Julia teaches at her Bat Mitzvah will not be just a pleasant memory. Rather I hope that they are–and will continue to be–urgent imperatives, which she and all of us continue to aspire to uphold throughout our lives.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford and the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Not Alone with Sweaty Palms

It was good to learn I am not alone!

About two weeks ago, I presented the following issue to my colleagues on Facebook:

Am I the only one who gets REALLY nervous every time I speak? I don’t really get it. I can’t count how many times I have spoken in public since I entered HUC in 1968 and even lots before that. And yet, whether it is Kol Nidre before a big crowd or 20 kids in a classroom, I get really nervous. I hope (and have been told often) that it doesn’t show—thank goodness—but I don’t fully understand why that happens. Any thoughts?

It felt strange

 Yes, even though I served forty years in the pulpit and spoke in 65 communities on five continents as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I get very nervous each and every time I speak.

It might have begun with my Bar Mitzvah. I thought I would die (literally) before I could get up and read from the Torah. “You mean the scroll has NO vowels, and they expect ME to read it,” I remember exclaiming incredulously to my parents!

But then I did my first ever exercise in deductive reasoning. I thought:

  • Kid’s in my class who are older then I have had their Bar Mitzvahs (It was much later that I learned that the proper term is ‘B’nai Mitzvah’),
  • Some of them are dumber than I am.
  • All of them are still alive.

Vital Lesson Learned

 Therefore, I reasoned, if I really practice and study hard, maybe I can make it. And I did.

The lesson has served me well, I always try to be well prepared, but that has never prevented me from getting very nervous. And so half-afraid that my colleagues would laugh at me, I posted my question.

To my surprise thirteen different colleagues affirmed, “You are not alone,” and six others clicked “Like” in recognition of my issue. Their affirmations confirmed what I believed (at least what I hoped) all along:

Although different people feel it to different degrees, the nervousness is a function of really caring about what I say and wanting it to have as much meaning as possible to those who listen.

A Small Price to Pay

 Knowing that, “it is not just me” who gets nervous was very reassuring. Thanks to my colleagues I can go forward feeling that that the nervousness I must overcome each time I speak is a small price to pay for the sacred privilege of sharing the fruit of my study and my experience with others.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bet Israel, West Hartford, CT

For my German readers: Kurzkommentar zum Tora-Abschnitt Ahare Mot-Kudoshim

                                                 Achte auf den toten Winkel!

Als ich das Autofahren lernte, war die wichtigste Lektion des Fahrlehrer wie des Lehrbuchs der Tote Winkel. Wenn wir die Fahrspur wechseln, könnte sich ein Auto im Toten Winkel verstecken. Wir könnten einen schlimmen Unfall verursachen, wenn wir nicht zu allererst auf den Teil der Straße kontrollieren, den unser Rückspiegel nicht erfasst.

Das gleiche Prinzip gilt auch für zwischenmenschliche Beziehungen!

Eins der großartigen Gebote des Tora-Abschnittes dieser Woche ist, dass Gott uns verbietet, “dem Tauben zu fluchen und vor den Blinden ein Hindernis zu legen” (Levitikus 19,14). In meinem ganzen Leben habe ich niemals gehört, dass jemand einem Tauben geflucht hätte oder einem Blinden vorsätzlich etwas in den Weg gelegt hätte. Gebietet uns die Tora etwas, was sowieso niemand tun würde? Sicher nicht!

Auf gewisse Weise ist jeder von uns taub und blind.

Wir alle haben Tote Winkel und Blinde Flecken. Wir haben Schwachpunkte und Empfindlichkeiten. Dieser Vers lehrt uns, die wunden Punkte anderer nicht auszunutzen. Aber diesem Ideal zu entsprechen ist gar nicht so leicht, grade bei denen, die wir lieben. Wenn wir mit jemanden zusammen leben, kennen wir seine Empfindlichkeiten. Wenn wir uns ärgern – und Ärger und Meinungsverschiedenheiten sind Teil auch jeder liebevollen Beziehung – beginnen wir meist instinktiv dort zu stochern, wo unsere Lieben taub und blind sind. Und sie machen es mit uns genauso.

Schlagen wir unter die Gürtellinie und zielen wir auf die Archilles-Verse, wenn wir verärgert sind?

Wenn wir es tun, dann schädigen oder gefährden sogar unsere wertvollsten Beziehungen. Aber wenn wir uns davon zurückhalten unserer Lieben blinde und taube Flecken auszunutzen, dann verdienen wir – und ich bin sicher, wir spüren auch – Gottes Freude. Das ist die Anstrengung wert!

Translation: Pastor Ursula Sieg

Check the Blind Spot!

Quick commentary: Torah portion Ahare Mot-Kedoshim

When I was learning to drive, one of the most important lessons the instructor and the manual taught was, “Check the blind spot!” When we change lanes, a car could be lurking and a dangerous accident could occur if we do not look first at the spot on the road our rear view mirror does not reveal.

The same principle holds in human relationships!

One of the great teachings of this weeks Torah portion is that God forbids us to “curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:14).”

In all of my life I have never heard anyone shout curses at a deaf person or try to purposely trip someone who is blind. Is the Torah commanding us to not do something no one ever would do in the first place? Certainly not!

In some ways each of us is deaf and blind.

We all have blind spots. We all have vulnerabilities. This verse is instructing us not to exploit these weaknesses, but this is not an easy ideal to live up to especially with those we love.

When we live with someone we know what his or her sensitivities are. Anger and disagreement are parts of any loving relationship.

When we get angry we—almost instinctively–hone in on those areas where they are “deaf and blind”, and they do the same to us.

Do we hit below the belt and go for those Achilles heels when we are angry?

When we do, we damage or even jeopardize our most precious relationships.

But when we hold ourselves back from exploiting those areas where our loved ones are “deaf and blind” we merit—and I believe we can feel—God’s pleasure. It is worth the effort to check the blind spot!

A Prayer Commemorating 100 Years Since the Armenian Genocide

Armenian Genocide serviceO God, Our hearts cry out, “How?!” “Why?!” How did this genocide happen?! Why did You let it happen?! One and a half million innocent Armenians tortured and slaughtered in the most horrible ways is an abomination. This genocide –and I use that word with purposeful intent—is an insult to Your desire that we create a just, caring, peaceful and compassionate society on earth! Yes, we cry out in anguish, but we know the answer to our question! This genocide did not happen because You let it happen. It happened because—just like Cain when he killed Abel—we—the creatures you created to be in charge of and responsible for this earth—spurned your desires for us. You blessed us, Eternal One, with free will, and we so horribly abused that power! And so Eternal One, we confess our complicity in the crime of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors, and we come here today to bear witness to our failure to act as You wished we would act. We know, O God, the proper question is not, “Where were You?” The proper question is, “Where were we?” It is a question that haunts us today a hundred years after the Armenian genocide known as the Meds Yeghern, and it will haunt us 100, 200 years from today, and as long as humanity endures. We cannot undo the past—as much as we wish we could—but we can bear witness to it! We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it! We cannot undo the past, but we can create a better future for our children, our grandchildren and the generations to follow! We cannot undo the past, but let each of us stand accountable if we fail to do our part in the future — by using the minds, hearts and talents with which you have blessed us, O God, to work to create the world of which the prophets Isaiah and Micah dreamed when they said: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal One as the seabed is covered by water (Isaiah 11:9)”. “And all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees with none to make them afraid! (Micah 4:4)” Amen

Why Is Israel So Special?

As Israel celebrates its 69th year of independence, my mind replays a scene that could easily happened 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, 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 peoples have realized their hopes for nationhood, sovereignty, and recognition from the world community. 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?

Had there been an Israel, the would not have been a Holocaust

After the Holocaust, the world realized that had there been an Israel to which Jews could flee; Hitler never would 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. The Jews of the world 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.”

Thankfully he was wrong.

The Jewish nation, against overwhelming odds, did manage to establish itself; but the dream to wipe her 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 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 years have been breeding grounds for hatred of Israel and terrorism.

It is OK to be critical

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. In particular, I strongly criticize the actions of Prime Minister Netanyahu in the days leading up to the recent election.

But none of us should allow our criticism to provide aid and political ammunition for those Jews and non-Jews alike¾who 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 the loss of Israel a tragedy the world should spare no effort to prevent.

For my German Readers: Kurz-Kommentar: Tazria-Metzora (Levitikus 12-15):

“Stock und Stein können brechen mein Bein” – Worte können das auch!

In einer Passage aus Levitikus über Hautkrankheiten für heutiges Leben etwas Lehrreiches zu fingen, ist eine formidable Herausforderung. Aber unsere Weisen waren ihr gewachsen. Sie schauten sich das Hebräische Wort für Lepra, מצורע – metzora, an und lehrten, dass Lepra die angemessene Strafe ist für den Missbrauch der Macht des Wortes.

Die Weisen verstanden, dass unsere Fähigkeit der Rede eine beeindruckende Macht ist, die einerseits sehr viel Gutes tun, andererseits so sehr Schaden anrichten kann.

In ihrer Genialität interpretierten sie den geheimnisvollsten Abschnitt der Tora als eine Warnung vor einer der verbreitetsten und schädlichsten Sünden: Verleumdung und Klattsch. Sie entwürdigen, so lehren unsere Weisen, drei Personen: den, über den geredet wird, den, der es ausspricht, und den, der zuhört. Es ist eine Sünde, die die Rabbiner mit Mord vergleichen (B. Arakin 15b).

Eine beliebte Geschichte erzählt von einem kleinen Mädchen, deren Gerede sie alle ihre Freundinnen kostete. Ihre Mutter brachte sie zum Rabbi in der Hoffnung er könnte ihr helfen. “Nimm ein Kissen”, wies sie der Rabbiner an, “schneide es auf und verstreu die Federn.” Das Kind tat, was er sagte und kam zurück zum Rabbi, der ihr nun sagte: “Jetzt sammle alle Federn wieder ein und näh das Kissen wieder zu.”

“Aber Rabbi”, sagte das Kind, ” das ist unmöglich.”

“Natürlich ist es möglich”, sagt der, “aber sobald Worte über unsere Lippen gegangen sind, können sie niemals zurückgeholt werden. Darum pass auf, dass du deine bedeutende Macht der Worte nutzt zu helfen und ermutigen, nicht um Schlechtes zu reden und Menschen fertig zu machen.

Das gehört zu dem Wichtigsten, was das kleine Mädchen und wir jemals lernen können.

Translation: Pastor Ursula Sieg

Quick Comment: “Tazria-Metzora” (Leviticus 12-15)

Finding meaning for our lives today in the passages in Leviticus dealing with skin diseases is a formidable challenge, but our rabbinic Sages were up to the task.

Looking at the Hebrew word for leprosy, מצורע – metzora, the rabbis taught that the disease was the appropriate punishment for the mot zee ra — one who abuses the power of speech.

Our Sages understood that our ability to speak is an awesome power that can cause either much good or much harm.

In their genius they interpreted the most esoteric passages of the Torah as a warning against one of the most common and most pernicious of sins, slander and gossip!

The gossip, our Sages taught, diminishes three people, the one spoken about, the one saying it, and the one who listens.  It is a sin, which the rabbis compare to murder. (B. Arakin 15b)

A favorite story tells of a little girl whose gossiping cost her all her friends.  Her mother took her to see the rabbi to see if she could help. “Take a pillow,” the rabbi instructed, “cut it open and scatter its feathers.” The child did so and returned to the rabbi who told her, “Now pick up all the scattered feathers and sew them back into the pillow.”

“But rabbi,” the child answered “that’s impossible,”

“Of course it is,” the rabbi answered, “but once words leave our lips they can never be brought back.  So take care to use your precious power of speech to uplift and encourage, not to speak evil and tear others down.”

It is one of the most important lessons the little girl and all of us can ever learn.

Bennett Pearl

Congregation Beth Israel, the Jewish people and the world at large have lost a great man!

It spoke volumes to me about Bennett Pearl’s values that he and Libby celebrated their 50th anniversary by coming to Shabbat Eve services at his beloved temple. It was rare that he was not here, and his smile warmed the sanctuary.

Bennett often referred to himself as the only volunteer that I ever fired.

He was.

He worked so hard and so tirelessly on the Legacy Program for the temple.

He threw his heart and soul into the effort. Several years ago he ended up in the hospital. I asked his doctor whether Bennett’s full-throttle efforts on behalf of the Legacy program could jeopardize his health. When the doctor agreed that it could, I took Bennett off the case.

As it turned out, it was only a medical furlough, not a firing. Before too long Bennett was back on the job that was so important to the future of the synagogue he loved so much.

Bennett’s love was not just for the synagogue as an institution but for the values it represents and for its people.

His love for and kindness to Vickie and me was a love we both felt constantly. He knew that chocolate chip ice cream was one of my favorite foods, so one day while I was recovering from surgery, he made a special trip to Manchester to buy me home made chocolate chip ice cream that is legendary.

He took a special interest in my son Ben, and the two of them talked business for hours. When Ben returned to Connecticut from Arizona, Bennett was a huge help to him in sorting out his career priorities and goals.

But perhaps Bennett’s activity that I admire most is his devotion to the little girl he tutored as a volunteer every week at Rawson School, his own alma mater. Every step of progress she made filled his heart with joy.

The Talmud teaches, “One who saves a single life, saves the entire world (B Sanhedrin 37a).

”Bennett Pearl saved many lives during his earthly journey and brought joy to many others.

If there were more people like him, Jewish life would be better off, and the world would be a better place. His memory will always be a blessing to our family and to so many others.