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.

From “Why?” to “Wonderful!” (Quick comment on Torah portion Va-Yikrah)

When I was handed my Torah portion to study for my Bar Mitzvah—Leviticus 5:17-26—many years ago I was SO disappointed. “What possible meaning,” I wondered, “do these ancient laws have? Why couldn’t I get some of the cool stories that my friends got?”

Years later I realized my portion contained two vital teachings for today:

  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. (Leviticus 5:17)
  • Victims of financial crimes must be compensated by the perpetrator. (Leviticus 5:24)

I later learned that such compensation was so important to the rabbis that they interpreted the 20% penalty mandated by the Torah into 25%. (B. Baba Metzia 54a) WOW! How great it could be if that law were applied today. Imagine Bernard Madoff having to pay each of his victims everything he swindled from them plus 25%.

I also began to ask: If my dull and dry and dull  Bar MItzvah portion could have so much to teach us today, how much more can we learn if we apply the Torah’s exciting stories to our lives?

Looking back I see that is where my career choice began

My growing interest in the meaning of the Torah’s stories contributed to my decision to become a rabbi. Years after my ordination I studied four years part-time at Vanderbilt Divinity School to earn a D. Min. in Biblical Interpretation. Twenty years of continuous study after completing that degree I decided to write my short book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.


I marvel at the strange ways the Eternal One works. If I had received a more “interesting” Torah portion, my whole life might have been different. Now I treasure every opportunity the Eternal One provides to share the ideas in Biblical stories that have changed my life and which can, I believe, change yours as well.


A Visit to Eden

These are days of great concern for Jews around the world. The rise of anti-Semitism is a real and alarming concern, yet, this past weekend I was able to put those concerns on hold.

In What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, I point out that the carefree world of the Garden of Eden is a world from which we’ve all been expelled. But this weekend as the guest of my dear friends, Elaine and Sheldon Kramer, I came close to an actual visit: Shabbat Eve services and the privilege of leading Torah study at Temple Isaiah in Maryland, the Bar Mitzvah of 79-year old Milt Kline, whose family I have known for 41 years, and yesterday morning cheering at the finish line of the IRON GIRL TRIATHLON for the Kramer’s daughter Missy, at whose Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation and wedding I officiated. This, coupled with the opportunity to discuss, sell and sign some books, has me feeling blessed, indeed!

During his Bar Mitzvah service Milt read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy (7:12-17) reaffirming the centrality of our Covenant with God. That Covenant, as God charged Abraham in the book of Genesis requires us to:

  1. Be a blessing in our lives (Genesis 12:2).
  2. Walk in God’s ways and be worthy of them (Genesis 17:1) meaning, we must embrace and exemplify God’s teachings.
  3.  Fill the world with צדקה ומשפט Tzedakah u’Mishpat, righteousness and justice.”

The rest of the Torah concerns itself with expounding on and elucidating the details of those Covenantal imperatives.

At Milt’s Bar Mitzvah, it was my privilege to address the congregation through him. Milt’s simcha also provided the opportunity to illustrate the parallels between the passage Milt read and the key Covenantal details about which his children, David and Lisa, read during their respective Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies nearly 40 years ago.

David’s Torah portion emphasized one of the most important of all Covenantal principles:   לא תוכל להתעלם Lo too-chal l’heet-ah lame You must not remain indifferent.” You see, in Judaism there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.  When we see injustice, we must acknowledge it, and then take the necessary measures to eradicate it.

At her Bat Mitzvah, Lisa examined the early observance of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16).  In that passage, the Israelites symbolically transferred their sins onto a scapegoat that carried them into the wilderness. Today, as Lisa taught, we have no scapegoats.  We must take responsibility to examine our lives with the intent of repenting for deeds of which we are not proud, with the resolve to do better going forward.

My late Ulpan (intensive Hebrew language training) teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, taught us that it is not just a credit to the Jewish people to have invented a day like Yom Kippur.  It is a credit and gift to all humanity to take a full day each year to engage in solemn חשבון  הנפש (Heshbon ha-nefesh) introspection. We are commanded to eschew all earthly pleasures (i.e., eating, drinking and sexual activity) to focus entirely on the duty of self-improvement.

I also noted that Lisa’s Haftarah (portion read from the prophets) was an angry rant from the prophet Ezekiel proclaiming that the people of Judah would suffer hardship and exile because they abandoned the covenant. (See Ezekiel 22:29-31).

It was wonderful to observe, then, that Milt’s Haftarah, 36 years later, brought the journey full-circle with a message of forgiveness, return and hope. “For the Eternal One has comforted Zion …and has made her desert like the Garden of Eden … joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of joyous song!” (Isaiah 51:3)

Yes, there is a real world of pain and suffering out there that invites pessimism and despair, but our tradition exhorts us—commands us—to look with hope toward the future.  No matter how bleak things appear, we trust in the promise that the wilderness in which we live can be transformed into an Eden, in which joy and gladness negates suffering and pain.  

That is the hope I embrace and cherish as I return to ‘the real world,’ strengthened by my glorious respite in Eden.

Adhesive Tape

Followers of my page know that I recently celebrated the 55th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah—the most important day of my life.

On that day, I walked up the steps to the bema on shaky legs. There, my father waited to enwrap me in the Tallit my grandmother had bought me . I still remember the pride on her face when she showed me the embroidered words in the corners near the fringes, “Best Quality.”

My father said the blessing in Ashkenazic Hebrew . The key words in Sephardic Hebrew are
לחתעטף בציצית (l’heet-ah-tafe bah tzitizit). But when my dad said it in Ashkenazic pronouncing the first “t” as an “s” it sounded to me like “adhesive tape.”

The word to enwrap is a reflexive verb but the plain meaning of its three letter root, ayin, tet, fay, is “to faint” or to falter.
I was certainly ready to faint or falter that day, but my father’s application of “adhesive tape” helped me to stand upright.
As time went on that adhesive tape had me somehow connected to Torah in a way that — though it seemed tenuous to me as a 13- year old boy — has attached me to Torah through all of these years..and my connection continues to grow stronger.

As a rabbi I have collected a good number of  tallesim over the years, but I wore my grandmother’s “best quality” one when I read the Torah for my 55th Bar Mitzvah anniversary. On that occasion, I noticed for the very first time that in the same little patch where it says, “Best Quality” there is a quotation in Hebrew from Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”

What a powerful symbol my first — and now seldom worn — tallit remains. It reminds me of my grandmother’s love, my father’s support, and my connection to, and love for, the land of Israel. But most of all, it is the adhesive tape that binds me with love to Torah and its teachings.

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.


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!