Vayechi Shabbat Morning 2013 Rabbi's “Bar Mitzvah” Shabbat

Vayechi Shabbat Morning 2013 Rabbi’s “Bar Mitzvah” Shabbat
When I celebrated my first bar mitzvah back in 1975, I remember that I was
told that the bar mitzvah speech should consist of thank yous. I was handed
a format and filled in the names of my parents and the rabbi and the bar
mitzvah teacher and I expressed my gratitude to everyone who had helped
me and to all the guests for coming. There was no Torah element, because I
actually hadn’t learned anything about the meaning of the portion or of the
day; I had just learned to repeat the Hebrew material by rote. I didn’t quite
articulate it at the time, but I did feel that something was missing in the
experience. Not that I have anything against cultivating the midah of
gratitude, but when I became a rabbi, I vowed that in my rabbinate the bar
mitzvah speech would consist of more than just thank yous; it would be an
actual Dvar Torah, in which the young person would teach the congregation
something about the meaning of the day so that the experience would be
about more than recitation of memorized Hebrew chanting, as important a
synagogue skill as that may be. The task of teaching the congregation some
words of Torah means that the young people actually have to learn some
Torah in the process, and working with young people on that learning has
been one of the most fulfilling pieces of my rabbinate.
So having worked out this whole approach to the purpose and pedagogy of
the bar mitzvah dvar torah, I’m going to proceed to violate it this morning
and repeat history by starting off with some thank yous. Hard to get past
the traumas of one’s childhood I suppose! There will be some Torah this
morning, but I just have to open this morning by expressing my gratitude to
all of you for being here this morning for this wonderful celebration, and to
the entire Narayever community for welcoming me and my family here 13
years ago and for being such a wonderfully hospitable place for me to serve.
When I entered rabbinical school, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a pulpit
rabbi as my career. I was hungry to learn Torah, and 5 years in seminary
seemed like a good way to achieve that goal. I worked in the Hillel world as
a campus rabbi before coming to Toronto, and I told Linda I’d only consider
working as a congregational rabbi in a shul where I could imagine myself
wanting to actually daven as a member of the community if I wasn’t the
rabbi. That was my criterion – it had to be Jewishly serious and substantial
with traditional davening combined with openness to the world outside. I
didn’t actually think I’d find such a place, and I therefore imagined staying in
the Hillel world for my career. But having been in this pulpit for 13 years
now, I can say with confidence that the vocation is a good one for me, and
that there couldn’t be a better match for me than this wonderful
congregation. If I were a “civilian” living in Toronto, this would certainly be
the community for me. It is truly a privilege to serve as your rabbi. So thank
you all very much – of course for today’s celebration, but even more for your
openness to the vision I have brought to this community for the last 13
years, a vision of a congregation which is serious about Jewish values and
Jewish tradition, respectful of each other in all our diversity, ethical in its
conduct, open to debate around questions of faith, joyful and optimistic in
tone, warm and embracing and compassionate toward people of all ages and
stages of life, newcomers, and those who may feel marginalized for all kinds
of reasons. We can always improve as a congregation, and we should be
self-critical when we fall short in any of these areas or others, because we
should hold ourselves to a high standard. But overall, I think we’re doing
pretty well, and that makes me feel quite proud.
And now, a little bit of Torah. Parashat Vayechi contains a very elaborate
deathbed scene at the end of the life of the patriarch Yaakov. The Torah tells
us that Yaakov died at the age of 147. If we look back at the deaths of the
other patriarchs, we see that Abraham died at the age of 175, and Yitzchak
at the age of 180. Now usually when we consider the age of biblical
characters, we get very caught up in the fact that they are said to have lived
to ages that are beyond the normal human life span as we are familiar with
it. How can we understand it when the Torah says Isaac lived until the age
of 180? Is such a thing possible? If not, what does it say about the veracity
of the Torah altogether?
I’m not going to be able to solve that one in the short time we have today,
but I did want to share a teaching about the patriarchal ages that I find very
significant. The number 175, Abraham’s lifespan, is a product of 5x5x7. 180,
Isaac’s lifespan, is a product of 6x6x5. And 147, Yaakov’s lifespan, is the
product of 7x7x3. The first two numbers each go up by one; the third
numbers go down by 2. So that’s pretty symmetrical. But it gets more
interesting. If you add up each equation, each adds up to the number 17.
Amazingly, 17 is the age when Yosef was sold by his brothers down to
Egypt; in other words, it was the number of years that Yosef lived with
Yaakov before he was sold, and 17 is also the number of years that Yaakov
lived with Yosef in Egypt before he died, as we learned in the first pasuk of
this morning’s reading.
Now, despite the fact that my father alav hashalom was an accountant, I’ve
never been a big numbers guy. But here’s the lesson I take from these
symmetries in the ages of the patriarchs. From our perspective as human
beings, events seem to be haphazard. Yaakov died at 147; if the Torah had
said he died at 146 or 148 what difference would that have made? He still
would have led an amazingly long and full life, would still have been one of
the founding patriarchs of our nation, one who gave his name Israel to our
entire people. Yet by looking closely at the numbers what is revealed is that
things that appear random are not actually so. There is a pattern in the
grand design. Things happen for a reason, even if we can’t see the reason at
the time or ever truly understand it.
As a man of faith, I believe that I didn’t just happen to get this particular
job. I believe that something bigger than me and the Narayever search
committee brought me here 13 years ago. I like to call that bigger
something God. I can’t prove it, and I can’t entirely say what it means. But
my sense of something bigger at work helps give me strength as I do my
work, as I meet new people and new challenges. There are other
congregations out there, and there are other terrific people out there in
those other communities, but I truly believe this is the work that I am meant
to do, with you, and what I am learning here at the Narayever are the
lessons I need to learn in my own personal spiritual journey. I am so blessed
that you let me into your lives, at moments of celebration, at moments of
crisis and loss, at moments of deep spiritual search. Again, thank you – you
have taught me so much. I can’t quite say at age 51 “Today I am a man,”
but after 13 years here I feel I can truly say “today I am a better man” for
having served this shul. Definitely not perfect, but hopefully better.
I also want to thank my family, my wife Linda and my girls Malka and Tali
who have supported me in my work over the last 13 years, including putting
up with so many evenings and weekends when I was not available for family
time because of my shul responsibilities. Thanks to all the presidents and
board members with whom I’ve worked; I couldn’t accomplish anything
without your active volunteer support. And thanks to Lili Little, Liz Bohnen,
Marsha Frydenberg, and Ariella Eben-Ezra, who organized today’s
celebration and the fundraising drive associated with it.
You know that I asked that donations in honour of this occasion go towards
our prayerbook fund. I have been feeling for several years that we are ready
as a community to transition to a more contemporary prayerbook, one that
maintains our traditional matbea tefila, our traditional approach to Jewish
liturgy, but which also reflects who we are as an egalitarian community
interested in a deeper exploration of the service that goes beyond rote
recitation. I believe our new Machzor, Lev Shalem, fits the bill. It is a
beautiful piece of liturgy, with a new translation in contemporary language, a
commentary providing both historical context and conveying the spiritual
meaning of the text, matriarchs included in the text itself instead of on
pasted-in stickers, some transliteration of key passages, and kavannot,
poetry, and prose enlarging our relationship to the prayers.
The Birnbaum has served us well, but it’s time to move on. I’m glad that the
Ritual Committee and the Board concurred with this decision. And I am
deeply grateful that so many of you stepped forward to support this project
and we will have a brand new machzor this year at the shul, and we have
seeded the potential purchase of new siddurim when the year-round siddur
in the same series as Lev Shalem is published in 2015. No decision has been
made at this time about getting the new machzor for the JCC, as we have a
large stock of the Harlow machzor for the JCC – Harlow being much more
recent than the Birnbaum. But who knows what the future will bring?
Meantime, thank you for your generosity.
I’d like to close with a poem by Merle Feld, which is included in the new
machzor in the margin as a kavanah for Rosh Hashanah, which is according
to tradition of course the birthday of the world. The poem is based in the
very first chapter of Bereshit, the days of Creation. Today we read the last
parasha of Genesis, next week we’ll already be in Exodus -- so let’s pause
for a moment before leaving Genesis behind and let the poet take us back to
the beginning:
Each year we sit expectantly, waiting to hear how it all began.
We strain and stretch ourselves, not to imagine darkness, chaos – darkness
and chaos are states with which we are well acquainted. No, we begin
by trying to conjure first light,
form and order and sense emerging
from tohu va-vohu. And how can it be
that on Day One there was light, night and day, but sun and moon not till
Day Four? OK, we think, put aside that question for the moment
as we struggle to see how it was,
for light has limitless possibilities
to consider – shimmering white heat
of the Negev, June sunset over the Pacific, the way it sparkles on early
morning maple leaves in Maine woods when everything seems new and
And yes, before sun and moon, the Yangtze, the Nile, the Mississippi, the
Danube, North Sea, Finger Lakes, Victoria Falls, Ein Gedi.
And fig trees, fuchsia, redwood, rhubarb, palm, eucalyptus, birch,
blueberries, mango, mustard seed, dogwood, dill, the mighty oak, oregano,
arugula, climbing roses, cinnamon and cyclamen.
A fifth day brings us dolphin and wren, duck and swan, seagull and whale,
crocodile, crab, bat, octopus, butterfly, sockeye salmon, and shark, trout,
snapping turtle, blue jay, hawk and dove, ladybug, lobster, falling sparrow,
heron and herring and hummingbird, whooping cranes and bees.
Now our hearts are pounding wildly, our eyes fill with tears at the glory of
the world – all in a jumble then, frantically getting ready for Shabbos,
come antelope and alley cat, Irish setter, polar bear, black bear, beaver,
tiger, squirrel, chipmunk and camel, lioness and spring lam, zebra, elephant,
rattlesnake, hippopotamus, giraffe, monkey, mountain goat – and just as it’s
time to reach into the box at the end of the cupboard to pull out two candles
and find the matches for licht bentschen –
miraculously comes the human who can strike the match and sanctify all the
work that God has done, eons ago and every moment since, battling tohu
va-vohu, the chaos that threatens to once again engulf it all. Shaken and
humbled, we reach for the match and the blessing, full of gratitude for this
holy world.
Sanctifying the work that God has done, reaching for the blessing,
experiencing the gratitude and the humility – this is the spiritual work that
we are here on earth to do. I believe that we do these things best when we
do them together, and that is the meaning of being a kehilla kedosha, a holy
congregation. Let’s continue to encourage each other to be the best people
we can be, the best Jews we can be, and let us be grateful for being part of
this holy congregation.
We closed Sefer Bereshit with the words Hazak Hazak ve-nitchazek. We
have been strong, together; we have been strong, together; let’s continue to
be strong please God as we honour Jewish tradition for many years to come,
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