Little Things Mean a Lot


For nine weeks in 1954, Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean A Lot” was the number one song in America. Miss Kallen died last January at 94, but her message endures. Little things do mean a lot, and they can make a difference.

“Secular it is,” would begin the last Bulletin column in December by my Rabbi, Charles A. Annes, of blessed memory, “but I wish all of you fulfillment,  joy and meaning in the New Year”

“Secular it is” but whether we are Jewish or not, we can make something Jewish out of it.

“Secular it is” but no matter what our faith, or even if we profess no faith, we can make something more of the beginning of the New Year than just an occasion for revelry.

The contrast between the significance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the secular New Year is striking.

The Jewish New Year is a time for intense self-examination and introspection. Ideally we prepare for it the entire month before the New Year arrives. We examine our deeds, ask those we have offended for forgiveness and resolve to not repeat our wrongdoings in the year ahead.

Something of that process does reflect itself in the secular custom of “New Year’s Resolutions,” but we can enhance its significance.

The beginning of the secular year is three to four months after Rosh Hashanah. It is a good time to bring ourselves in for a spiritual “tune up.” It is a good time to ask ourselves how we are doing with the “little things.”

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the values in Genesis’ Creation Story.

Most significantly we remember that we are created in God’s image. That does not mean we look like God because no one knows what God looks like.

It does mean that of all the creatures on earth we have the most responsibility. We more than any other being shape this world, physically and morally, for better or for worse.

The beginning of the secular New Year is a perfect time to ask ourselves, how are we doing?

How are we using the powers and abilities with which God has entrusted us? Will the world be better or worse because of what I do in the year ahead?

I have often said: We will not all cure cancer or bring about peace between warring nations. But we all can do the little things that make a difference.

We can be kinder to those we love and to those with whom we interact. We can be more conscious of our impact on the environment. We can be on the lookout for things we can do that will make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Yes, as Kitty Kallen sang so beautifully way back in 1954, “Little Things Mean a Lot.”

“Secular it is” but the new year provides a perfect opportunity to examine the little things we do or don’t do that can help to make ourselves more just, caring and compassionate reflections of “Gods image” than we were last year.

Treasure Beyond Measure

(Top) Library empty; (Bottom) Library in progress

When I retired from the pulpit of Congregation Beth Israel in 2011, David Ward packed all of my books.  Most of them have remained in boxes in our basement since then.

To tell the truth, I did not really miss them.

The ones I use all the time are in my home study, and almost everything else I wanted to know I could find on line. That is still the case.

Nevertheless I felt ill at ease. My older son Leo contributed to that feeling when he pointedly remarked, “Those books in your basement are treasures, and they will eventually rot in those boxes.”

In Germany this past fall, our host, Pastor Ursula Sieg, challenged me to rescue one book a day from the basement dungeon where I had imprisoned them. I did not know how to do that as my study upstairs already overflows its bookshelves.

When we returned from Germany, the challenge from Leo and Ursula finally impelled me to action. Since our younger son Ben moved out from the finished portion of our basement several years ago, we really have not used the space very often.

So I asked Vickie if we could hire our wonderful handyman/carpenter, Glen Tracy, and ask him to line the wall with bookshelves. She agreed, and Glen and his helper installed the shelves in one long day. “Now,” he said when he finished, “comes your job, to unpack and shelve all those books.”

An arduous task but infinitely rewarding

I have begun to do so. I have been at it a week. Leo and his family were here for several days, and he was an immense help. Still carrying the books from the storage area of the basement to the finished area, organizing and then shelving them has been far more tiring than I ever imagined. It has also been very rewarding.

I still have a long way to go, but the library is definitely beginning to take shape.

I am amazed at the number of books I own. I am also amazed at how many I had forgotten and am rediscovering anew. Among them are some inscribed with touching words from the authors. Inscribed books have their own special section.

I am organizing the rest into Biblical Studies, Talmud, Midrash, Commentaries, Jewish History, Contemporary Jewish Thought, Study and Research Aids, Pastoral Counseling, Christian Thought, Islam and Other Religions, Classical literature, Humor, Hebrew Literature, Prayerbooks and Life Cycle, Children, Adolescent, Anti-Semitism, Novels, Paperbacks, Israel, Biographies, Sports, and Miscellaneous.

The hard truth is that I probably will not read or study many of these books again, and with so much on line, there was no place to which I could have donated them. Clearly, the practical thing to do would have been to get rid of most of them. But I just could not bring myself to do it.

They are the story of my life, and it has been an amazing experience to handle them anew!

I think back on the hours I pored over many of them. I think of the places I read them and the people I associate with them. So many memories come flooding back with each book that I rescue from the boxes and restore to a dignified home.

And while, it is true, there are many I probably will not read or even handle again, one thing is sure. The fact that they are now accessible means that I will certainly study and read some, and  will learn new things.

In addition, with each book I shelve I silently pray: May it be Your will, Eternal One, that one day my children and grandchildren will peruse the collection and find something of enduring value calling to them from the once empty walls.







A Chanukah Miracle

Cindy Stowell's inspiring journey continues as four-day "Jeopardy!" champion

For me this year, Chanukah is all about Cindy Stowell!

2300 years ago a small group of loyal Jews defeated those among our people who cared so little for our faith that they were willing to give it up to “be just like everyone else.”

Only after civil war broke out among the Jews of Judaea did the Assyrian-Greek army of Antiochus IV invade Judaea, pollute the temple and outlaw all Jewish observance.

A small army of Jews took to the hills and fought the invaders, eventually driving them out of Jerusalem. They rededicated the temple that the Greek soldiers had defiled with idols and the sacrifice of pigs.

The story of Chanukah is about the first armed struggle for religious liberty in history.

The festival symbolizes of triumph over impossible odds. So does Cindy Stowell.

Cindy Stowell died on December 5, but as of this writing she has just won for the fifth day on Jeopardy! The breadth and depth of her knowledge are most impressive.

Because Jeopardy never allows the results of shows to air before the telecasts, no one outside of the program staff knows when her streak ended.

As the lights in our Chanukah lamp increase each day of the eight-day festival, so will the memory of Cindy Stowell’s intellect and courage.

Yes, Ms Stowell died on December 5. How long will she remain “alive” on TV’s most popular quiz show? A day? Two? A week?

It does not matter! To me she is Jeopardy’s all-time champion.

Those of us who have watched all of her episodes that have aired so far and that were taped in August are not surprised to learn that she was battling a high-grade fever and was on painkillers during her shows’ tapings. We can see she is growing weaker and her voice is growing softer each day.

In my heart it will never be stilled! The courage of this woman who played so brilliantly while battling stage-four colon cancer is my Chanukah miracle!

One of the reasons we celebrate Chanukah at this season is to kindle light during the darkest season of the year.

The light of Cindy Stowell will last much longer than the eight days of Chanukah. She embodies all that is precious about the Festival, and her light will shine forever.

Guest Blogger: Greg Marcus, “My Moment of Truth”

Only rarely do I invite guests to share my blog, but the excerpt from Greg Marcus’ The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions below struck a deep chord in me. Why? The experience Greg describes in this essay is a perfect example of what I mean by “Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.” It is a wonderful example of a moment when we see the Torah not just as an ancient text but as spiritual instruction that speaks directly to us. Greg finds spiritual enlightenment and a greater sense of self-worth through Mussar. I find those things through intense wrestling with the stories in the Torah. Jewish thought offers many paths to greater self-awareness that can benefit us whether we are Jewish or not.   Thank you, Dr. Marcus, for allowing me to share your wisdom with my readers.
                    —Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

 My spiritual journey started about ten years ago, at an unexpected time and place. At the time, my focus was almost entirely secular. I had my dream job, and I thought I was living a dream life. I had a great wife, two young daughters, and I was working at a Silicon Valley company that was literally revolutionizing human genetics research.

At first, the fact that I was working 90 hours a week did not bother me, and I took pride in my toughness. But my devotion to the workplace left me vulnerable, and I came to a place where despite my Ph.D. from MIT, I felt worthless. I felt like a bad husband, a bad father, and a bad employee. I was like an eggshell with all of the egg sucked out, hollow, dark, and empty inside. It started at the apex of my career – I was marketing the flagship product, and was leading the team developing the fourth generation, with the scope and features that everyone wanted. As luck would have it, this project was the first one with major technical hurdles and setbacks. We made our launch date because I was not going to let us fail. We worked every weekend and through almost every vacation for an entire year. We got to launch, we shipped the product, and it flopped. It flopped in every single customer’s hands. And management blamed me.

A few weeks after launch, I was sitting in a meeting with the top company leadership. None of the VPs and directors would make eye contact with me. Someone very senior started peppering me with questions: How much until this, how long until that, how many of this? I fumbled with my spreadsheets and she asked,

“Don’t you know how important this is?”

I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants and said in a quiet voice, “Yes.”

“Well, it is time to start acting like it.”

I walked out of that room with my shoulders down and said to myself in the hall, “Wow, I have really let the company down. I was the person in charge. This happened on my watch.”

The following week, I was at the largest human genetics meeting of the year. I was in a room full of our best customers and prospects when our featured speaker presented the product in a very poor light. I spent the rest of that afternoon at our booth in the trade show hall explaining over and over again that things would be just fine because we would have fixes for all of the issues.

That night, a bunch of us were walking to a bar to blow off some steam when my cell phone rang.

“Greg, it’s mom. Grandma died today.”

I stood on the corner with an umbrella in one hand and my cell phone in the other watching my colleagues file into the bar. My mother said to me,

“Surely you are not thinking of skipping the funeral.”

She was right. I was on the verge of not going. I walked back to my hotel room, and burst into tears, thinking how proud my grandmother had been of me. When the meeting was over, I flew directly to the funeral. They waited an extra day so I could make it.

A few weeks after the funeral, I was still really down. Now it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. The key thing on Yom Kippur is that, we fast from sundown to sundown, we don’t go to work, and we spend the day in prayer and reflection. It was 3 in the afternoon, and I was sitting towards the back by myself. My head was back, and my eyes were closed. I was conserving my strength because I hadn’t had any food or water since the night before.

At the front, they were chanting from the Torah in Hebrew. I opened my eyes, and looked down at the translation: Don’t turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods. My immediate thought was, Idol worship, that ancient statue-worshipping thing is no longer relevant in the modern world… And then this phrase popped into my head. It was like a clear quiet voice saying, “You need to do what is best for the company.” My stomach clenched, and I started sweating.

We only used the phrase, “Do what is best for the company” to justify something that was unpopular, like a layoff, a canceled project, or asking someone to skip a vacation. I thought about the nature of the company, an amorphous entity with a brand logo. I thought to myself, “Doing what is best for the company is not the same as doing what is best. My God, have I turned my company into a false idol? I guess I can’t really be a family first person when I’m working 90 hours a week.”

I realized that my priorities were upside down, and I decided right then and there that I had to stop doing what is best for the company, and start putting people first. I needed to take care of myself, and I needed to take care of my family.

Within a year, I had cut my hours by a third without changing jobs. Not a single person at work noticed. In fact, my career was thriving because I was no longer strung out and exhausted.

My life at home became a joy. One afternoon, I walked past the door of the living room, and stopped to watch my preschool daughter play with a friend. The scene was different from the wild rambunctious play that was the norm. They were sitting on the floor cross legged, talking quietly to each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were so intense and serious. My eyes teared up as I saw this part of her I had never seen. I thought to myself “If I hadn’t been home, I would have missed this irreplaceable moment.”

The moment of change

For years, I looked back and wondered where those words that popped into my head came from. If you are of a certain spiritual bent, you may be thinking that those words came from God. The collective view of how God speaks to us has been influenced by the movie The Ten Commandments – a powerful deep voice, booming in a way that we can’t deny. While that makes for good Hollywood, that is not how these things actually work. Today, I have no doubt that God spoke to me, but it certainly was not what I believed back then. And you don’t need to believe it now to keep reading.

It doesn’t matter whether it was a actually a message from the Divinity, because whatever the cause, that moment of quiet changed my life. I began to act differently, and because I was acting differently, I began to feel differently.

Spending less time working greatly improved my life, but it did not answer what inside me was driving me to work so much in the first place. I am a bit of a seeker, and I wanted answers to some of the bigger questions about myself, and life in general. Unexpectedly, the answers came from Judaism.

Judaism, as I perceived it at the time, was largely focused on rituals and traditions. I had not yet been exposed to the richness of Jewish thought that has developed through debate and scholarship over the last few millennia. Sages and scholars puzzled over great philosophical questions, AND how Jewish values can be applied in everyday life to answer those questions. It was the practice of Mussar that brought it all together for me, and helped me find the answers.

From The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions by Greg Marcus, PhD. © 2016 by Greg Marcus, PhD. Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd. Greg is a practitioner, facilitator, and innovator of American Mussar, a 21st century spiritual practice for an authentic and meaningful life. To learn more, please visit Greg at


Jacob Becomes Israel

After twenty long years of exile Jacob decided to travel home even though he knew Esau had vowed to kill him and was on his way to meet him with a regiment of 400 men. As he prayed to God for help, Jacob acknowledged that he was “unworthy of all the kindness” that God had showed him (Genesis 32:11).

On the night before he met his brother, Jacob struggled with everything he had been and hoped to be.

It was a life-altering struggle. After he wrestled with God, his conscience, and all he had done to Esau, he emerged a new man with new determination. He resolved to reconcile with Esau and to ensure they could cooperatively co-existeach in his own land. He also limped on an injured hip to teach us that truly coming to grips with God–and the way God wants us to live–involves pain as well as progress and reward.

With whom did Jacob struggle on that eventful night?

Was it an angel, his conscience, or did he struggle with God? Perhaps it was the spirit of his brother Esau, or a combination of the above. We cannot be sure. We can be sure that after the struggle, Jacob awoke a new man with a new name. He became Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” Only after that night did Jacob begin to realize his full potential as a covenantal partner with the Almighty.

Note that the name Israel does not mean to believe in God or to understand everything about God. It means to struggle with the idea that despite all the evil and immorality we see in the world, there is a good, caring God who implores us to use our talents to make the world a better place. The invitation to that struggle–to and the way each of us can use our talents to make a better world–emerges from the Hebrew Bible, but is open to all of us whether we identify with a particular religion or not.

After the struggle, Jacob knew that Esau prepared to wage war (Genesis 32:7), but he prepared to make peace. He sent his brother a generous offering (Genesis 32)an abundance of cows, bulls, goats, camels, ewes, rams, and donkeys. Through this gesture, Jacob endeavored to return to his brother the material value of the birthright he had wrested from him long ago (Genesis 25:29).

With this offer Jacob, who is now Israel, was saying, “I acknowledge and regret the pain I caused you.” The gift was so substantial and so sincere that by the time Esau and Jacob met, Esau abandoned the course of violence that he had planned for twenty years. The two brothers embraced, as brothers should.

Jacob’s growth and development make him worthy to bear the name Israel.

In his transformation, he becomes a worthy role model for us. The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws. Jacob grows through the mistakes of his youth and becomes the responsible leader of our people. He blesses Joseph’s sons and brings them into the Covenant of Abraham. Although he lives as a pensioner in Egypt for seventeen years, he makes his son Joseph swear that he will ensure his burial not in a foreign country but in the land God promised to his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, the land that Abraham purchased at an exorbitant price in the sight of all the people of Heth long ago.