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.


Four Versions of What Happened at Sinai

Shavuot is less than two weeks away! Shavuot (see prior post: Shavuot: A Perfect Example of Ancient Reform Judaism) commemorates the pivotal moment when God revealed Torah on Mount Sinai. So unique in history did the Sages of our people envision the event at Sinai that they imagined the whole world coming to a complete silent standstill. In the words of the Midrash:

When God gave the Torah, no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox grunted…the sea did not roar … the whole world hushed in breathless silence, and the Divine voice went forth proclaiming (Exodus 20:2): “I am the Lord your God; who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Shemot Rabbah 29:9)

What makes this moment so unique? At Sinai the Covenant God made first with Abraham alone became the privilege and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish people, past, present and future.

What actually took place at Sinai? It should surprise no one that our Sages fertile minds produced a number differing Midrashim. Here are four:

In one God offers Torah to all the nations of the world. But when they hear what it says –Don’t cheat, don’t steal, treat the stranger the widow, the orphan and the poor with special dignity and respect – they all reject it out of hand. (See Sefer Ha-Agadah (Bialik and Rovenitzky, editors, vol. 1, p. 59).

Another Midrash, that I like to call The Godfather Midrash, has God lift Mount Sinai and hold it over the heads of the assembled Children of Israel. Then God says, either you accept and pledge to observe my Torah or I shall drop the mountain on top of you. (B. Shabbat 88A and B. Avodah Zarah 2B)

This Midrash teaches us the vital lesson that our only purpose as a people is to be teachers and examples of the ideals of Torah to the world. Indeed by adherence to these ideals we become in the words of the Prophet Isaiah; “A light to the nations’ (Isaiah 49:6) a worthy example for all. If we are not willing to accept the responsibility of adhering to the Torah’s ideals, there is no good reason for us to continue to exist.

A third Midrash that states that Israel’s willingness to accept Torah was so important to God that the Almighty threatened to break the promise made after the flood never to destroy the world again unless Israel agrees to embrace the Torah and its ideals (B. Shabbat 88A).

A fourth Midrash stresses the importance of passing the ideal of Torah to future generations. In this one the question is not, are we willing to accept the Torah? It is rather, how will we demonstrate to God that we are worthy to receive it? When God asks us to offer guarantors of our worthiness, we offer the deeds of our patriarchs and our prophets but God finds neither of these acceptable. Only when we pledge the loyalty of our children to God’s teachings does God reveal the Torah to our people. (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah, Chapter 1, Section 4, Midrash 1)

The rabbinic method of interpretation encouraged creative thought. There was rarely only one acceptable point of view on any question. Indeed there are no fewer than four different rabbinic versions of how the greatest moment in our religious history came to be. Each one, though, stress our privilege and responsibility to study Torah and pass its teachings on to the next generation.


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

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!