I Will Go

Quick Comment, Parashat Hayye Sarah, (Genesis, Chapters 23:1-25:18)

“I will go.” With these words Rebecca—and by extension the Torah—changed the course of human history.

Abraham is now old and knows the future of the fledgling Covenant he has established with God depends on finding just the right wife for Isaac. He dispatches his trusted servant (whom the Midrash unanimously concludes is Eliezer of Genesis 15) to Haran and says find the right woman and bring her back here to the Promised Land.

With God’s help and after an ingenious test at the well, Eliezer chooses Rebecca. He then goes to her brother and legal guardian, Laban, to ask for her hand. Laban agrees, but before Rebecca leaves, he asks and receives her consent

Torah does not make a big deal of it, but it set an earth shaking legal precedent in Jewish law. A woman cannot be married without her consent.

The episode ends with the instructive words, “And Isaac loved her and found comfort in her after the death of his mother.”

In my experience as a rabbi I have found the death of a parent often imposes great stress on a marriage.

Sometimes he or she is simply not able to respond in a way that meets the acute emotional needs of the one who suffers a loss. I have seen marriages fall apart surrounding this issue.

The last sentence of the story tells us that the marriage was strong, and Rebecca met Isaac’s needs well.

Next week’s portion will reveal that Rebecca was by far the stronger character of the two, but that independence and strength revealed themselves in her (one-word in Hebrew) answer to her brother’s question, “Do you consent to go with this man, and live your life far away from home? She answered, “אלך I will go!”

The Days of Awe

One of the questions readers of What’s in It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives have asked concerns references to the Jewish High Holy Days in the chapter “What If I Don’t Believe in God.” In response to that question, this essay explains the meaning of that sacred season to Jews.

 

Behold, it is the Day of Judgment. As a shepherd musters his sheep, causing them to pass under his staff, so do You cause every living soul to pass before You . . .
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
On Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall be born
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall complete his years . . .
And who shall not complete his years
Who shall be serene and who shall be disturbed
Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted
Who shall be poor and who shall be rich . . .
But repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness and compassion avert the severity of the decree!

The prayer excerpt above, written by Kalonymous ben Meshullam in the eleventh century, starkly expresses the High Holy Day mood of impending judgment. During the Days of Awe (the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), serious Jews strip away the veneer of our righteousness and prepare for God’s scrutiny. It is the culmination of an intense period of introspection and self-reflection in which we examine who we have been with an eye toward who we want to be. During the Days of Awe, we humbly acknowledge our shortcomings and resolve to improve in the year ahead.

Although the language of the prayers clearly addresses our relationship with God, the significance of this period does not diminish for those Jews who find themselves unable to relate to God in a personal sense. The process of self-examination, contrition, and resolve can be as therapeutically valid for the atheist as for the Orthodox Jew and everyone whose religious beliefs fall somewhere in between.

When Jews seek forgiveness for the shortcomings and wrongful acts, we do not ask for supernatural absolution for shortcoming inherent in our nature. The Hebrew word for “sin,” חטא, (chet) connotes an action that we regret, but which is within our power to correct. The Days of Awe provide us with a special opportunity—although certainly we should try to be aware of the impact of our actions all the time—to ponder, reconsider, and adjust our behavior in a positive direction.

The most distinctive part of the Rosh Hashanah ritual is the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn. According to the thirteenth-century philosopher/physician/commentator Moses Maimonides, the piercing sounds of the shofar cry out to us like a spiritual alarm clock with the following message: “Awake from your slumber, you who are asleep. Wake up . . . search your deeds and repent . . . amend your ways and deeds!”

The sound of the shofar, noted Saadia Gaon in the tenth century, reminds us of the way just and merciful monarchs operate: First, they warn the people of their decrees; but if they do not heed the warning, violators are held accountable. The shofar is a spiritual warning to remind us of the way God wishes us to live our lives.

Yom Kippur arrives ten days after Rosh Hashanah. On it, we observe a complete fast and spend the entire day in prayer and meditation.

More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Philo endorsed the Yom Kippur fast “because of the self-restraint which it entails.” The fast reminds Jews that true repentance (which leads to improved conduct) requires much self-control. Abstaining from all food and drink from sunset on the eve of the holy day until after dark the next day gives all of us an inkling of what it means to be really hungry. The experience reminds us of our obligation to alleviate hunger in whatever way we can wherever it exists. It also reminds us to cause no one to suffer privation through our actions. One of the wonderful innovations of modern Jewish life is that many synagogues conduct massive food drives. We bring the food from which we abstain—and them some—to the synagogue to distribute to local food banks. It was a great source of pride to me in my congregation in West Hartford to have two moving vans parked outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur and see them filled up with food.
I hasten to note that no one should fast if doing so would cause a medical hardship. Such people are not only permitted to eat; they are commanded to do so.

The most striking portion of the Day of Atonement liturgy is the chanting of the Kol Nidre prayer at the beginning of the service on Yom Kippur Eve. The haunting melody, to which the cantor sings an ancient Aramaic legal formula, symbolizes for many both the anguish and the hope of the Jewish experience. Leo Tolstoy once remarked, “The Kol Nidre is of all melodies the saddest, and yet the most uplifting.” The text of the prayer, which some consider nearly 1,500 years old, ask God to absolve us of rash vows we might have made or might make but be unable to fulfill. Many times in history, tyrants forced us to disavow our religion to save our lives. The Kol Nidre brought comfort and a feeling of absolution from those vows we made under duress.

Anti-Semites jump on the prayer as an escape clause for Jews to get out of obligations we do not wish to meet. In a disputation before King Louis IX of France in 1240, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris successfully defended the Kol Nidre prayer against that charge by pointing out that Jewish law explicitly states that Yom Kippur rituals and prayers only cover transgressions against God. “For sins between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until the offender appeases the one that he or she wronged” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).

The same Mishnah dispels the notion that Yom Kippur absolves the individual who sins capriciously. The text states, “If one says, ‘I will sin and repent continuously,’ he will not be given an opportunity to repent. If one says, ‘I will sin and the Day of Atonement will affect Atonement,’ then the Day of Atonement does not affect atonement.”

Jewish tradition acknowledges that attaining the humility, contrition, and resolve necessary for sincere repentance is no easy task. The Talmud accords the highest praise to one who successfully turns from his or her misdeeds, stating, “Where repentant sinners stand, even the thoroughly righteous cannot stand.” Maimonides commented that the reward for penitents is so great because they must exert even greater effort than the thoroughly righteous to avoid going astray.

Though the theme of the Days of Awe is judgment, the rabbis of old viewed God more as a compassionate parent than as a stern, impartial magistrate. In the eyes of the sages, God is well aware of the difficulties of repentance and is eager to do everything possible to help us return to the right path. In one parable, the rabbis liken God to a parent whose son was a distance of one hundred days from home. His friends advise him to return to his parents. He answered, “I cannot; I do not have the strength.”

His father sent him a message, saying, “Come as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” (Midrash Pesikta Rabati, Shuvah Yisrael) The story suggests that atonement during the Days of Awe is neither an act of God’s unearned grace nor the result of humanity’s unilateral struggle. It is rather the wonderful product of a covenantal partnership that allows those who take the process seriously to enter the New Year feeling cleansed and renewed.

Approaching Elul

 On the night of August 26, the Hebrew month of Av ends, and the month of Elul begins. Elul in Jewish thought is a sacred time during which we begin in earnest the process of self-examination and reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) a month hence.

 We need this month to prepare for the grueling period of introspection that the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) should be. A sports team does not simply put on their uniforms and show up to play their first game. They prepare and practice for weeks beforehand. So it should be with us and the Days of Awe. We do not just show up and expect to be “ready to play” on Rosh Hashanah. We carefully prepare during the month of Elul by reviewing our thoughts and actions over the past year and asking ourselves, “How can we do better in the year ahead?”

 It is a worthy task that elevates our humanity. If we take it seriously, the Days of Awe themselves will be much more meaningful, and we will enter the new Year better equipped to use the talents with which God has blessed us to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!

 The moon of Av wanes rapidly,

And soon Elul arrives—

A holy month, our Sages taught,

A chance to examine our lives.

 We prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe

The Holy Days just ahead.

We look at our thoughts, our words, our deeds,

“What might we have done instead?”

 To better live true to the Covenant

The Almighty asks we uphold

To work to create a better world

As our lives unfold.

 Will our world be a kinder realm

Because God planted us here?

Will we strive to make the earth a place

Where no one needs to fear?

 As the moon of Av wanes rapidly

And sacred Elul arrives

May these be the questions we ask ourselves

As we examine our lives!

 

A Mothers’ Day Tribute to My Mom, Florence Fuchs

My sister and I owe my mother more than we can ever repay. When Rochelle wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah back in 1955-–and she became only the second Bat Mitzvah in the history of Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ–it was my mother who stood up for her when my father didn’t “see any reason for a girl to do that.”

When I developed every illness known to man on Sunday mornings to get out of religious school, I can still hear Mom say, “That’s too bad, dear. Get in the car.”

After my Bar Mitzvah when I absolutely knew that my career as a tennis, hockey, basketball, football or baseball player was the only important thing in my life and that I simply had no time for Confirmation classes, my Mother would not hear of that either. I often wonder what I would be doing today if Mom had let me become a “Bar Mitzvah Fade Away.”

I owe my mother so much, but when my father suffered through a long battle with kidney failure Florence Fuchs emerged as the greatest hero of my life.

In those days, when I was off studying, my bedroom became the “Dialysis Room.” My mother set up and operated an elaborate (and it was a much more complex matter in 1969 than it is today) dialysis machine, which along with the bed took up almost the entire room. She ran that machine faithfully, skillfully and lovingly for several hours three times a week, and prolonged both the length and quality of my father’s all too short life.

It is one thing for children to love their mother. It is more remarkable for people to love their spouses’ mother the way Jack and Vickie loved Mom. She delighted in ‘Chelle’s 50-year marriage to Jack and was always grateful for the scrupulous and loving way they have looked after her finances. Vickie treated Mom as a second Mother who was wise, kind, loving, and fair — and who never interfered.

I think of her often especially when Mother’s Day and her birthday, May 15 come around. When the little obstacles life places in my path seem to mount up, I remember how my mother handled the obstacles life placed before her, and my problems suddenly become less overwhelming.

As a rabbi, my life work is to teach that God created us human beings to be in charge of and responsible for this world and to use our talents to create a just, caring compassionate society. I am blessed that my Mother exemplified those ideals for me since I was old enough to remember.

When the company for which Dad worked went out of business when I was eight years old, I never knew that money was tight. It was a year before Dad and his partners set up their own business and some time after that before things became comfortable.

Now that I look back on it, we did not go on vacation or go out to eat in those days, but I never really noticed. She kept adult worries out of my childhood. I am so grateful for that and for so many other things:

She schlepped to the wilds of Arkansas, Maryland, Nashville and West Hartford to be wherever I was during the Holy Days and other special times.

She showed me the joys of Judaism and opened my eyes to its depth:

By lighting Shabbat candles,

Cooking a special and delicious Shabbat dinner each week,

Bringing me to services, and making me feel important for being there,

And teaching me to respect the religions of others the way she taught me to love my own.

The way Mom took care for Dad years when he was so sick showed me what to look for in a life partner, and in a few weeks Vickie and I will celebrate forty-three years of marriage.

It is hard to believe she has been gone almost eleven years. I will always admire how she never stopped trying to do for herself even when the time had long arrived to let others do for her. At the end she moved slowly, saw poorly, and took so many medications that I often lost count.

In my mind and heart, though, she will always be young, vibrant, beautiful, and a shining example of what a Mother should be.

 

Shavuot: A Perfect Example of Ancient “Reform” Judaism

One of the great examples of Reform or Progressive Jewish thinking–some 2000 years before there was anything called Reform Judaism– regards the Festival of Shavuot.
In the Torah, Shavuot was strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of both the first summer fruits and the barley harvest. Our ingenious Rabbinic Sages reformed (and I use that word purposely) the festival into the anniversary of when our biblical ancestors received the Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot be sure of exactly how it happened, but I imagine a scenario much like this:
A group of concerned rabbis was discussing the state of Jewish life. One Sage mused, “You know, Shavuot just doesn’t attract the great crowds to celebrate in Jerusalem that it once did.”
A second Rabbi answered: “That’s true, but it’s understandable. Times have changed!”
A third participant: “You are absolutely right! When we were primarily an agrarian society, first fruits and the barley harvest were compelling reasons to celebrate. Now, that we have become more urban, those occasions don’t mean so much to many people.”
First Sage: “What can we do?”
A fourth participant spoke up: “I’ve got it! If you look at the Torah, Shavuot comes 50 days after the first day of Pesach. That’s just about the same amount of time that it took our ancestors to travel to Mount Sinai after they left Egypt! Even though the Torah does not make the connection explicitly we can make the connection. From now on we can celebrate Shavuot—in addition to its biblical significance–as a joyous celebration of when we received Torah at Mount Sinai”.
A fifth Sage asks: “Can we do that?”
The fourth responds: “Not only can we, we must!! If we want our precious Jewish heritage to endure, we must be skilled interpreters of biblical texts so that they speak meaningfully to the present and future realities of our people.”
In this way, I imagine, the rabbis of the Talmudic period took a fading festival and gave it a historical underpinning and new life for future generations. In similar fashion, our early Reform leaders made Shavuot the time when ninth or tenth grade students celebrate Confirmation.
The example of what our ancient Sages did with Shavuot should continue to inspire our thinking as Reform or Liberal Jews today. If we want our precious heritage to remain vibrant and relevant, we must always be eager to embrace opportunities to make our traditions and celebrations speak more meaningfully to our children and grandchildren!
When we do, let us rejoice that the process of continually “reforming” Judaism is wholly consistent–not at odds–with the process by which our Rabbinic Sages reformed biblicalJudaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.

One More Look at Elijah Before Passover

 

Do you ever wonder why we open the door for Elijah at our Passover Seder, rather than Moses, King David or the prophet Isaiah?

Without question, Elijah would have taken a place of honor in Jewish folklore for the righteousness and courage he displayed in the 9th century BCE.  But he never would have become the most storied biblical figure in all rabbinic literature, let alone the one for whom we open the door each year, were it not for the last of the biblical prophets who lived nearly 500 years later named Malachi.

It is not clear how he came up with the idea, but Malachi concludes his brief book with a prediction that one day, Elijah – who, the Bible records, ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire – would return, “before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One.  He will turn the hearts of parents toward their children and children toward their parents.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

With these words Elijah planted hope for the ultimate redemption of our people and the salvation of the world.  With the last verses of his book, Malachi anointed Elijah to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Through the ages – especially in our darkest years of oppression and exile – Malachi’s vision and the stories it spawned sustained us.  One day God would send an anointed messenger, a messiah, to set all that was wrong with the world, aright!

By the time Jesus lived and died, the Jewish messianic hope consisted of four specific expectations:

  1. The end of the oppression of the Jews
  2. A miraculous ingathering to Jerusalem of Jews exiled over the years
  3. The restoration of a descendant of David on the throne of a united (the country divided shortly after the death of King Solomon into two smaller, weaker countries) Israel
  4. The inauguration of an endless era of peace and harmony for all humanity

People ask why we Jews do not accept Jesus as our messiah.  The answer is that Jesus fulfilled none of the Jewish messianic expectations.

As Reform Judaism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the idea of an individual messiah who would miraculously transform the world gave way to the notion of a messianic era toward which we all should work.  Today, the ideal of an eternal era of peace and harmony remains the only significant messianic goal of those that our people envisioned long ago.  Day by day, act of compassion by act of compassion, each one of us has the opportunity to help make that ideal a reality.

When the moment comes in our Passover Seder to send the children to open the door for Elijah, let it not just be a moment of mirth when we shake the table and say, “he drank the wine we set out for him.”  Rather, let it be a moment in which we teach our children that the Almighty hopes each of us will play a role in repairing our broken world.

“A Sneak Peek: Chapter Summaries of What’s in it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives”

Below you will find descriptions of the chapters in my forthcoming book. Of course I hope these description will make you eager to read the entire work   As I am finishing up my writing, I want to also ask my readers:  Is there anything missing; anything you think should be included in this book that I may have left out. I consider your feedback very important and will carefully consider any suggestions.
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Creation – Neither science nor fairy tale, the Story of Creation in Genesis reveals the overarching hope of biblical thought:  That life has purpose and meaning, and for better or worse, we human beings are in charge of, and responsible for, this earth.  Each of us participates in creation when we use our talents to help in some way create a more just, caring and compassionate society.

Eden – Many think of the Story of Eden as “The Fall of Man.”  We might better think of it as the “Elevation of Humanity.”  Eve, rather than being the villain that much of religious history has made of her, is the true hero of the story because she chooses a limited life of purpose and meaning in the real world over an endless existence of indolence in the Garden.

Cain and Abel — Nobel laureate John Steinbeck considers Cain and Abel, “the symbol story of the human soul” because it is the story of every one of us. It is about rejection – which all of us have faced – and how we deal with it.  And Yes!  If this world is ever going to work, we must be our brothers and sisters’ keeper.

Noah and The Flood — Many accounts of a deluge emerge from various cultures of the ancient near east.  The biblical flood story is unique in two important ways:  Only in the Bible does the flood occur because of humanity’s moral failure. Only in the Bible is the hero chosen not for capriciousness, but for his righteousness.

Babel – The brief account of the Tower of Babel is analogous to “the last straw” in God’s attempt to persuade humanity as a whole, to create a just, caring and compassionate society. Also, I am often asked: “Wouldn’t it be great if there were just one religious outlook?”  No!  The Tower of Babel teaches us that God created diversity, and the world is better off because of it.

Abraham – After three attempts at persuading humanity to create a just, caring and compassionate society (in Eden; pre- and post-flood Eden), the Eternal One chooses Abram as a Covenantal Partner. He then launches a new vehicle for humanity to understand God’s desires.  Now, one family and its descendants will become an instrument to teach the world the ideals and values we all hold dear.

Jacob – A punk kid who extorts the precious birthright from his brother and misrepresents himself before his blind father grows through many trials to emerge as a responsible partner in God’s Covenant. If we understand the relationship between the crimes of Jacob’s youth and the tribulations he endured because of them, his journey can transform our lives, as well.

Joseph – Like his father, Joseph transforms from a spoiled, selfish brat into a leader whose bold policies saved the biblical world from famine.  His story and the parallel story of his brother Judah, are stories of suffering, growth and forgiveness.  The lessons they learn through bitter experience can inspire us as we seek meaning and purpose in our lives.

Slavery – “A new king arose who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  In this verse, we have the paradigm of all Jewish history.  A pattern has repeated itself in almost every country where Jews have lived.  It is a fitting starting point for our people’s journey from the degradation of bondage to the dignity of a free people, and it has a universal message.

Six Women Heroes – Moses is the hero of the Exodus and hands-down the most important figure in the Bible and all Jewish thought.  Nevertheless, Moses would not have gotten as far as uttering, “Let my people go…” (Exodus 7:16) before Pharaoh were it not for six women.  If we look closely, we find many biblical examples in which women play pivotal roles in biblical narratives, while the male protagonist is often clueless by comparison. The recurring biblical theme of the woman who “gets it,” while the man does not, was initiated by Adam and Eve.  This theme offers strong testimony that the Bible affirms and exalts the power and role of women.

Moses and the Call to Leadership – Why God Chose Moses.  The Bible gives us hints, but for the rabbis, the partnership was based on a careful examination by God of Moses’ character.  This chapter explores the rabbinic view of why God chose Moses, and the implications of that choice for our lives today.  Like Moses, we each have a destiny, if we choose, as Moses eventually did, to embrace it.

God’s Role in the Exodus — If God represents goodness and kindness, why does God “harden Pharaoh’s heart?”   To understand the story of the Exodus, we must see it as a war between God and the pagan deity, Pharaoh.  Pharaoh, on the one hand, represented the prevailing pagan value system. One worshipped him by building bigger and bigger monuments to his glory in the hope that he would use his perceived powers to protect his followers.  God represented the values of the Covenant made with Abraham: the values of justice caring and compassion.  These divergent value systems cannot coexist, and the Exodus represents a struggle to the finish between them.  The story and the Passover celebrations based on that, bid us to ask which set of values we choose for ourselves: a life of self-centered greed, or a life of caring, concern and service to others.

Crossing the Sea – In the Hebrew Bible’s most dramatic miracle, God splits the Red Sea allowing the children of Israel to cross on dry ground.  The Egyptians follow and are drowned when the Almighty orders the seawaters to cover them.  The Children of Israel are now free, but not free to be like everyone else.  The ancient Hebrews were set free in order to march on to Sinai to renew the Covenant God made with Abraham. It is a Covenant whose basic values are accessible to everyone, whether he or she is Jewish, or not. One of the issues the drowning of the Egyptians addresses is how we should react to the downfall of our enemy.

A Visit from Jethro –Jethro’s visit to Moses and the Israelites marks, perhaps, the first management tutorial in recorded literature.  Moses, Jethro warns, risks burnout unless he develops a plan to delegate authority.  Moses heeds Jethro’s advice, and we can benefit from it at well.

Standing at Sinai – This chapter examines different perspectives of God’s revelation at Sinai.  What might have happened during the encounter that transformed God’s people from a band of refugees from slavery into a people covenanted for all time to the service of the Almighty?  We shall look at a number of Midrashim that offer contradictory viewpoints on what might have occurred at Sinai and ask the more important question: what do these different points of view teach us today?

The Golden Calf – Almost as soon as Israel agrees to the Covenant with God, they break faith in the worst way imaginable by worshipping a golden calf.  Certainly, we do not build idols and bow down to them today, yet the story of the golden calf still speaks to our human condition.  Do we choose the path of generosity, kindness and the quest to make a better world, or to find our own security and satisfaction at the expense of others?

The Spies — In the second year of the Israelites desert journey Moses sends out twelve spies to report on the land God has promised them.  Ten of the spies come back and say the land is unconquerable.  Two, though, Joshua and Caleb demur and say we need to have faith and confidence in God’s promise.  The chapter explores what we can learn from this story.

The Waters’ of Meribah — For nearly forty years Moses has been God’s faithful servant.  He slips up once – in what seems like a minor way—by hitting a rock to give drink to the thirsty people instead of asking the rock to brings forth water in God’s name.  God punishes Moses by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land.  Is this fair?  Perhaps not, but the lesson of the story is vital to each one of us.

What If I Don’t Believe in God? — As discussed throughout the book, the Hebrew Bible assumes the existence of God, who wants human beings to establish a just, caring and compassionate society.  The simple fact is not everyone believes in such a God.  This chapter discusses how the ideals and values of the Journey can speak effectively and meaningfully even to those who do not believe in God.

Conclusion— This summary of the journey and its meanings reviews and elaborate on the vital lessons we learn from the Genesis’ story of creation to the edge of the Promised Land where Moses’ dies on Mount Nebo.  Moses is the Hebrew Bible’s pre-eminent figure, but he dies with his dreams unfulfilled.  Like Moses, most of us leave this earth with –despite our accomplishments – dreams unfulfilled.  The lesson we learn is that each of us should do the best we can for as long as we can, to make the world in some way, better.  Part of our task is to inspire and mentor others to continue the work.

 
 

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.

The Premise of My Book in Brief

Rabbi Stephen FuchsWHAT’S IN IT FOR ME walks an important line between fundamentalism and fairy tale and fills an important niche in Torah commentary.  Fundamentalist perspectives on Scripture abound and so do commentaries denigrating Scripture as unscientific and unhistorical.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME cares nothing about science because the Bible is not a science book.  It cares little about history as well. The premise of the book is that its stories were carefully selected for what they can teach us about living more meaningful lives and becoming better people.

Torah presents to the world a deity unlike any others that people worshipped.  In the pagan world into which Torah emerged gods and goddesses were force that people worshipped because they presumed these deities had power.  The only purpose of worship was to bribe these gods with offerings so that they would not use that power to hurt or to induce the deity to use their power to help those who worshipped them.  Ethics, morals and human interaction were of no concern to these gods.

God in the Torah is entirely different.   Of course we only worship one God and our God is invisible.  But as crucial as these differences are they are NOT the most important.

The most important difference is the agenda of Torah’s God.  From the story of Creation on God’s desire is that human beings – we creatures who are in charge of and responsible for the quality of life on earth – use our power to create a just, caring ad compassionate society.  All of our religious behavior as Jews – Holy Days, festivals, and life cycle celebrations – is designed to inspire us to work toward God’s ultimate goal.

There is no overstating the importance of this difference.  Yes, there are sacrifices in the Bible, but their purpose is to inspire ethical and moral behavior not assuage God’s anger.  Over and over again the prophets particularly those of the eighth pre-Christian century, Amos Hosea Isaiah and Micah, instruct the people of Judah and Israel that sacrificial observance unaccompanied by ethical and moral behavior is an abomination.

How desperately we need that message today!  Our religious observances only have meaning in so far as they inspire us to care for those less fortunate than we are, to seek housing for the homeless and food for the hungry.  In Jewish thought there is no place for an innocent bystander in the face of poverty and injustice. This is the Torah’s timeless message .  That is the message I hope my book will help its readers make their own.

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!