Why the letter Kof?

The Hebrew letter Kof stands as a symbol of my web page.  I chose it because it is the first letter of the Hebrew word “Kadosh” which means holy.

One of the most famous lines of the Torah teaches (Lev. 19:1) “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”

“Holy” really means set apart or different from the ordinary.  Torah came into the world because the ordinary values of the ancient world were not good enough for our people. Our tradition calls on us to be different: to strive for an ever higher standard of justice, righteousness, kindness and compassion than those which prevailing societal norms uphold.

In terms of time we are taught to make a distinction between ordinary time — the time to do the work of living — and time that is Kadosh, holy.  In Kadosh time we step back and ponder why we do the things we do.  We ask ourselves: How can we infuse more kindness, caring and compassion into our daily living?  In his best seller THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS (ANCHOR BOOKS, 1999), Thomas Cahill calls the division between sacred and ordinary time the greatest gift of the Jewish people to humanity.

When I was a child, my parents gave me a copy of THE ALEPH-BET STORY BOOK by Deborah Pessin.  It contains children’s stories about each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  My favorite among the stories was then and is now, “Kof and the Woodcutter’s Prayer.”  In it, a poor woodcutter and a rabbi who visits him by chance both learn and teach a vital lesson about humility and priorities. I have retold that story many times in my career because of the lessons it teaches.

My favorite Shabbat Prayer asks God to, “Help us to distinguish between that which is real and enduring (my favorite definition of Kadosh) and that which is fleeting and vain.” In writing my book I have searched the Torah for those values which are real and enduring. In my blog as well I hope my thoughts help my readers and me to infuse a greater sense of Kedushah, (holiness, that begins with the letter Kof) into our lives.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Another Bar Mitzvah Memory and Its Legacy

55 years ago this coming Shabbat I was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah.  Although compared to most B’nai Mitzvah today, I did little in the service, I feel my knowledge of my portions was pretty deep for a thirteen-year-old.

I remember my rabbi, Avraham Soltes, of very blessed memory, standing next to me with his strong left arm around my shoulder!  It was so reassuring because I remember as I described in an earlier post (How I Came to Love Torah) being very nervous.  But what I remember most appreciatively, and what I incorporated in almost every Bar/Bat mitzvah service I conducted over 40 years (except in a very few cases when parents insisted that I do not) were the questions.

In our synagogue back then, students did not give the speeches or Divrei Torah that have become de rigueur  today.  Rather, after I had finished my readings Rabbi Soltes asked me questions.  He asked about my portion, he asked me to recite the ten commandments, and he asked me what my favorite Psalm was and to quote a bit of it.  I quoted Psalm 61, still a favorite, “Hear my cry, O God.  Attend unto my prayer.  From the ends of the earth I cry out to you when my heart is overwhelmed.  Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.”  Without doubt, it was the questions and my ability to answer them that made my Bar Mitzvah day the most important day in my life.

Today, few rabbis ask questions.  Only one of my colleagues with whom I worked together in years past, Rabbi Beth Davidson, continues the practice in her own congregation.

Today as well, most Bat Mitzvah kids will not even know what a Psalm is.  Rather they have spent hours memorizing the chant of long sections of the Torah.  Few, though, learn Hebrew vocabulary words that the rabbi can ask them on the bema and invite the student to explain how they fit into his or her Torah or Haftarah portion.   I think our students are the losers.

The skillful rabbi knows that with a gifted student the material he/she expects the student to know can range far and wide.    With a slower student, the rabbi and the student deal with a much smaller vocabulary list and other potential questions.  In the service then, the difference between a gifted and slower student is not the AMOUNT of Hebrew that they chant, rendering the difference between them crystal clear to everyone who attends.  The difference when questions are asked is more subtle, how much material have the student and rabbi covered when they studied together.

Yes, it can happen that a student will not know an answer, but if the rabbi has done her/his homework it should be  very seldom. In life, there is always a chance that something goes wrong.  A skillful rabbi who has studied with his or her students will know what they know greatly minimizing the chance that the student will (in common parlance) “mess up.”  A skillful rabbi also knows how to cover for the student in the rare cases that it happens.  Once — only once — in the 100’s of services I conducted a student missed a question, and I did not cover properly.  I regret my lapse –30 years ago– and I will continue to regret it.  But I don’t see that one slip as reason to deny a student the opportunity to remember what he or she learns — not how well or how much he or she can chant — as the focal point of the experience.


The Adult Issues of Purim

Many think of Purim as simply a time for groggers, costumes noise and merriment.  With all the frivolity and fun that we shall hopefully experience, it is easy to dismiss Purim as merely a fun holiday for the young and the young at heart, but Purim is much more.

The Purim story confronts the mature reader with vital philosophical questions about the place of women in society, the phenomenon of prejudice, and the very meaning of life itself.

Too seldom do we ponder the courage of Vashti, King Ahasueras‘ first wife. In the story, the world’s most powerful man commands her to display her beauty for his drunken friends, but she refuses. She is a worthy role model for our daughters. She is also a good jumping off point for a discussion about the value of women as complete human beings. Vashti refused to simply be a sex object even if that refusal cost her throne. Hopefully all of us can learn from her courage

A vital lesson about prejudice presents itself when Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman.  Haman is angry, but as the Bible records: “…it was not enough for him to punish Mordecai alone, for they had told him the people of

Mordecai” (Esther 3:5). No, because of his anger at one man, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.

Sadly, the prejudice presented against in the book of Esther has confronted our people many times throughout history. The Purim story provides a vivid example of this phenomenon that we can profitably discuss with young people.

The third vital lesson instructs us in the meaning of life itself. When Mordecai read Haman’s decree condemning the Jews of Persia to death, he sent a message to Esther to intercede for her people. Esther’s response was that she dared not enter the presence of the king because he had not summoned her, and the penalty is death for anyone even the queen who appears unbidden before the king unless he holds out his scepter as a sign of acceptance.

Mordecai, through the servant Hatach, asks Esther a question we should all frequently ask ourselves: “Who knows if you have not become queen for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). In other words, who knows if we are where we are at any given moment for the opportunity  to make a difference.

Mordecai really asks: Are we on this earth just to enjoy life? Is our own pleasure the primary purpose of our existence?

Jewish tradition and the Book of Esther say, “No.”

Esther could have lived out her life in selfish luxury. She could have ignored the plight of our people. But Mordecai’s question pricked her conscience enough so that she risked everything to save in an effort to save our people.

Mordecai’s question addresses us as well. What are we willing to risk to keep our people vibrant and strong?

In our day-to-day lives, we, like Esther have moments when our action or inaction, our willingness or unwillingness to risk it all can make a vital difference in someone’s life. We can seize these moments or turn away from them. Esther swallowed her fear and seized her moment. Her example and her courage commend themselves to all of us when the times come for us to step up and make a difference.

As Purim approaches, let us prepare for more than fun and games. If we truly study the Story of Esther, what we learn about the dignity of women, the phenomenon of prejudice and the very meaning of life itself can enrich our Jewish souls long after the celebration is over.

How I Came to Love Torah

At my retirement party as Sr. Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, I was spoofed for the number of times I made reference over the years to the importance of my Bar Mitzvah!

In truth I consider that day, March 21, 1959, the most important day of my life.! I don’t say the best day of my life.  Those were the day I got married, the days my children and grandchildren were born, and the day I was ordained as a rabbi.  But as for importance my Bar Mitzvah Day tops the list.

Why?  I never thought I could do it.  That’s why.  I mean, me read from the Torah with NO VOWELS (The Hebrew texts of Torah scrolls contain neither vowels nor punctuation)?  There is NO way! I was so scared of my impending Bar Mitzvah that I thought I would die before I could get up there and read with no vowels.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

But then I went through my first ever exercise – as I realized years later – in deductive reasoning.  The process went like this.

  1. There are others in my Bar Mitzvah class
  2. Some of them have already had their B’nai Mitzvah services
  3. None of them died.
  4. Some of them are dumber than I am
  5. Based on 1-4 I might survive.

And I did!  And every time I have faced a challenge since then that I didn’t think I could conquer, I think back to my Bar Mitzvah and I say, “I didn’t think I could do that either.  Maybe if I just keep trying the best I can, I can do it.  It worked when I entered rabbinical school knowing no more than my Bar Mitzvah prep Hebrew and felt like a complete dummy!  Though I can’t say it has worked every single time, that mantra has helped me more often than not.

But there is another reason my Bar Mitzvah is so important.  It made me take Torah seriously!  My portion, Va-yikrah, the first in the book of Leviticus is among the most esoteric in all of scripture.  And yet there are two lessons in what I read that are as modern as today:

  1. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it (Lev. 5:17)
  2. Victim compensation should be the major form of redress for financial crimes. (Lev. 5:24)

These discoveries occasioned a major WOW for me!  If such treasures were gleanable for my dry as dust portion, what insights relevant to life today are waiting for me to discover in the narrative portions of the Torah.  Fifty-four years later, my book,  WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME: Finding Ourselves Biblical Narratives is the result.  I hope you find it meaningful reading!