Isaac’s Bar Mitzvah Speech – Rosh Hashanah II 5774

I can’t believe this day has finally arrived. There were definitely a few moments when it was not at all certain that I would be standing here before you.

I know what you all must be wondering. What happened up there – on the mountain? It is difficult for me to talk about. Some of it I still do not understand. I keep replaying the events of those three days over and over in my mind, and different images keep flooding into my head – many of them contradictory. Looking back, I don’t quite know what was real and what might be a figment of my imagination.

Father has never talked about “the incident” since. He barely even spoke while it was going on. It all started when Father came to me, and said, his voice filled with gentleness: “My son, my favorite son whom I love, Isaac, you must come with me tomorrow. We are going to worship the Lord.”

Father had been telling me about the Lord for as long as I can remember. That this God, the only God, sent him on a journey from his native home to the land of Canaan, where we live now. Father left everything behind, and set out with Mother to come here. God had communicated with Father several times, promising that Father would be the founder of a great nation.

I was to be the one through whom this blessing, this b’rit, or covenant, as he called it, would pass. Although Father told me about the Lord often, I never heard the voice. I was never visited by angels. Father always seemed so certain, so unwavering. He knew in his heart that these promises would be fulfilled. And so I have always trusted him, even though I felt that this was too great a burden for me to bear.

When he told me to get ready for our journey, I went along.

On the morning of the third day, Father looked up and saw a mountain. He asked the two servants who were with us if they could see anything out of the ordinary, but they could not. I could see it, however. Moriah. The mountain was enveloped in clouds, with a pillar of fire flashing within.*1* He sent away the two lads with the donkey, and gave me the wood for the burnt offering to carry. Father took the flint and the knife.

Something was missing. “Father,” I asked, “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering.”*2*

“God will provide, my son,” he replied. There was something in his eyes at that moment. A distant look, as if he was concentrating on a voice that was meant only for him. Then he looked at me lovingly, and without a word placed his hand on my shoulder and we walked up the mountain together.

When we reached the top, Father began collecting large stones to build an altar. It was at that moment that it became clear to me what I had known all along. There would be no sheep. I was the sheep.

But I didn’t know if I could do it.

“Father,” I said, as he put the last stone in place, “I am just a boy. I don’t know that I will be able to stay still for the sacrifice. I am worried that if I get scared, I will tremble out of fear of the knife, and you will feel sorrow, and perhaps then your sacrifice to God will become invalid. Please, Father, bind me extra tightly.”*3*

And so he did. He stacked the wood on top of the stones, and placed me, bound, on top. Then Father grasped the knife.

At the moment that he raised it high, I looked up, and beheld something wondrous. The heavens opened. I saw the Shekhinah, God’s very Presence, seated in the heavenly throne room, which was filled with angels. For the first time, I understood a little about the One who commanded Father to offer me up as a burnt offering. My soul flew out of my body.

An ethereal voice cried out, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not raise your hand against the boy.” The Holy One revived me. I came to, and all I could think to do was praise the Lord: “Blessed are you Adonai, who gives life to the dead.”*4*

I then realized that my eyesight had gone blurry. While my soul was leaving my body, Father’s eyes were dripping with tears. Apparently, he could no longer keep his emotions bottled up, even as his heart was filled with joy at fulfilling God’s command. Father’s tears poured into my eyes. I have had difficulty seeing ever since.*5*

I was in a daze. Suddenly, there was movement off to the side. It was a ram, its horns caught in a thicket. I recognized this ram, although I don’t think Father did. It was from our flock. We had named it, ironically, Isaac.

Father had come to worship the Lord, a task which he had to complete. Without betraying any emotion, he freed the other Isaac from the bush, and brought it to the altar, where he offered it up to God.

Since that day, Father and I have hardly spoken. I was sent off to the Garden of Eden to recover. Then, Father enrolled me at the Shem and Ever Day School to learn God’s Torah and the mitzvot.

But a mystery still haunts me. I was the one through whom the Covenant would be fulfilled. And yet, I was the one whom Father was asked to sacrifice. Father says that this was a test. I don’t know what exactly it was a test of. A test to see if his faith in God was greater than his love for me? A double test, to see if he would carry out the command to the very end, confident that he would be stopped at the last minute so that God’s promise of children as numerous as the starts could be fulfilled? Whatever it was, it seems that Father passed it.

Afterwards, an angel blessed him, because he did not hold back. Therefore, Father, myself, and all of our descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. The nations of the world will be blessed through us, because Father obeyed the Lord’s command.

And now here I am, becoming a man.

There are a few people without whom I could not have made it to this day.

First of all, I would like to thank all of my teachers at the Shem and Ever Day School.*6* You taught me Torah and mitzvot with so much love and passion. I will strive to pass on that same love of Torah to my own children.

I also want to thank the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home.*7* You nursed me back to health when I needed you. You healed my neck, which was nicked by the knife. You did such a great job that I only have a tiny scar the size of a bead.*8* I literally would not be here without you.

Ishmael, my brother, you had to leave when I was really young, and I still do not quite understand why. Mom said you were a bad influence on me, but I really missed having a big brother around. We do not see eye to eye on most things, but I think we have more in common than most people assume. I hope we can find an opportunity to spend some time together so that we can really get to know each other. Maybe then, each of us might be able to hear and accept the other “where he is.”*9* We have spent way too many years apart.

Mom, I know that you are here with me in spirit. I was the son you always wanted. You had given up on ever having children, but then, miraculously, you got pregnant and had me. Sometimes I wonder if, having been born so late, you and dad might have put too many hopes in me. I know you protected me fiercely from what you saw as bad influences, and I do not blame you for that. You loved me more than anything in the world, and you put my future ahead of everything. You and dad each loved me intensely, but quite differently, and that could be confusing sometimes. Mom, I heard you died right after “the incident.” I overheard the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home whispering something about how the Adversary told you what Dad and I had been up to, and the shock was too great. I was so sad to not be able to mourn for you at your funeral. Whenever I look at your empty tent, I am painfully aware of the hole in my heart. I long for the day when my memory of you will not be so difficult.*10*

Last, Father. I don’t blame you for what you did. I know you love me as much as it is possible for a father to love a son. It’s just that your faith in God was stronger. My faith, I think, is not the same.

When I have kids one day, God willing, I plan to do things differently. I prefer a quieter life. I don’t want to travel far and wide. I don’t want to seize the gates of my foes. I want to be close with my kids.

I worry about how my descendants will understand what has happened to me. There will come a time when they will suffer persecution, when they will be oppressed and murdered for being heirs to this covenant. What, then, will they do – when their love for God is so great, matched only be their love for their children? What will they do when the bloodthirsty mobs come, demanding that they break the covenant, and turn over their sons and daughters, whom they love?

I know what they will do. They will look to me and Father as examples. And they will offer up their children to God. But there will be no angel to stay their hands. There will be no miracle to turn aside the hordes at the gates. They will accomplish that which Father only showed a willingness to complete. “Yours was a trial,” they will say “mine were the performances.”*11* They will compose elegies to glorify their martyrdom, such as this:

On the merit of the Akedah at Moriah once we could lean,

Safeguarded for the salvation of age after age-

Now one Akedah follows another, they cannot be counted.*12*

Is this what it means to be chosen? Chosen for what? For suffering. For love. For death.

No. Not for death. I refuse to believe that. For life. Maybe the test was a lesson. After all, God stopped Father at the last minute. “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him!”*13* cried out the angel. God does not want parents to offer up their children as burnt offerings. God wants parents to raise up their children with love, and learning.

Thanks to all of you for being here with me as I celebrate becoming Bar Mitzvah. If there is one lesson I take from what happened to me, it is to treat every day as a gift. Every day we are alive is a day that God has sent angels to protect us. We must strive to make the most of the blessings we have been granted.

That is the legacy I will leave to my descendants.

 

*1*Genesis Rabbah 56:1,2

*2*Genesis 22:7

*3*Genesis Rabbah 56:8

*4*Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 31 quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, pp. 30-32

*5*Genesis Rabbah 56:8

*6*Genesis Rabbah 56:11 (4)

*7*Abravanel on Genesis 22:19 (5-6)

*8*R. Joshua ibn Shuaib, Sefer Derashot (Cracow, 1573), Hayye Sarah, 96.

*9*Genesis 21:17

*10*Genesis 24:67

*11*Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 16

*12*Selihah by Rabbi David bar Meshullam: “O God, do not hush up the shedding of my blood!” quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 21

*13*Genesis 22:12

 

Do Jewish And Love It – Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773

This morning, we read the double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei. It describes the building of the Tabernacle. We hear a lot about the chief craftsman – Betzalel. There is even a major university in Jerusalem named after him, The Bezalel School of Art and Design.

But we don’t hear so much about his number two guy – Aholiav. He is mentioned only five times in the Torah, once at the beginning of last week’s Parshah, and four times in this week’s double portion.

Here is what we know about him: Aholiav was the chief assistant to Betzalel. His father’s name was Ahisamach, from the tribe of Dan. He was an expert carver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.*1* That is pretty much it in the Torah. And the Rabbis don’t have much more to add.

The Talmud*2* cites a midrash about one of Aholiav’s descendants. When King Solomon was building the Temple in Jerusalem nearly four hundred years later, he recruited a lot of top talent. One of the artisans mentioned is named Hiram from Tyre. This is a different Hiram than the well-known King Hiram from Lebanon. Hiram of Tyre is described in the Book of Chronicles*3* as being “skilled at working in gold, silver, bronze, iron, precious stones, and wood; in purple, blue, and crimson yarn and in fine linen…” His mother is from the tribe of Dan, and his father is a Tyrian.

The midrash notes that Hiram’s mother and Aholiav both come from the same tribe, Dan. And, they both share common skills in artistry. The lesson is then drawn that a child should never abandon his or her parent’s trade.

Elsewhere in the Talmud*4*, we are taught: “Happy is a person who sees one’s parents in an exalted trade. Woe to a person who sees one’s parents in an inferior trade.”

The Torah Temimah, Rabbi Barukh Epstein’s turn of the twentieth century commentary that weaves together the Torah and the oral tradition, ties these two midrashim together:

“When [a peson’s] parents seize on to a nice trade, s/he too will seize on it. And so to when [a person’s parents] seize on to an inferior trade, s/he too will seize it. Therefore, happy is one who sees his/her parents in an exalted trade, because s/he will consequently seize upon something similar.”*5*

The Torah Temimah is not saying that children have to follow their parents into business. No, the burden is not on the child to follow his or her parents’ examples. The burden is on the parents to be the example for their children. And the result, according to the midrash, is “ashrei,” happiness.

So much of our path in life is set into motion by our upbringing. Our parents are our moral, intellectual, and emotional role models. Whether we embrace their example, or reject it, we will always be responding to what we experienced growing up.

A son who sees his mother making ethical decisions in business is much likelier to make decisions ethically himself. Similarly, if a person’s father lied and cheated, his daughter is far more likely to behave similarly.

This is also true when it comes to transmitting our Jewish tradition. The big question everyone in the Jewish world wrestles with today is continuity. How do we ensure that the next generation is going to continue to identify Jewishly and affiliate with the Jewish community?

And so, the money pours in. Lately, the trend is towards trans or post-denominationalism. The big bucks have gone towards Jewish day schools, summer camps, and free trips to Israel for young adults. Spend the vast amount of resources on creating Jewish experiences for young people, the thinking goes, and they will continue to affiliate when they start to have families of their own. Maybe it will work.

At the local level, although we don’t quite have the big bucks, we are also concerned with the questions of Jewish continuity. When I speak with parents before their children’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, this is by far the number one goal that they express for their kids.

For decades, synagogues have invested their energy in children’s programming: religious school, youth groups, Shabbat youth programs. And these things are important. We have to provide engaging religious and educational opportunities for kids in our synagogue.

But that, in and of itself, is not going to achieve the desired outcome. Pouring all of our religious commitment into our kids is not going to make them better Jews. It is not likely to produce a deep and lasting faith, or a life-long commitment to Judaism.

The model cannot be totally kid-centered. When it is, the message it sends is that as soon as you have your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or for some, graduate high school, then you are done.

When we pour all of our efforts into kids, it means that there is nothing left for adults except to repeat the pattern with their own kids.

The solution for Jewish continuity is not to create more and more programs and educational opportunities for children. These things are certainly important, but are ultimately hollow if we don’t do something else.

The solution lies with all of us: We have to do Jewish things, and we have to love it.

This has been my driving goal for our Purim celebration. Growing up, Purim was always a kid-centered holiday. It was great fun dressing up, eating lots of junk, running around, and making a lot of noise. But when you outgrow that, what is left? My goal for Sinai has been to take back Purim from the kids. The adults have to have fun. Because you know what, if we are having fun, the kids are going to have fun too. And they are going to expect to have fun when they grow up.

The same is true for Pesach, in just over two weeks. When there are a lot of kids around a seder table, there is pressure to cater to them. To skip the adult-level conversations and hurry up to the meal. But when we do that, we are not doing the kids any favors. Children need to see adults engaging in the seder at an adult level. And they need to be welcomed to participate at that adult level when they express an interest. That leaves a powerful impression, a more powerful impression, I suspect, than a seder that is only about games and exclusively kid-oriented activities.

It is also true with regard to the daily practice of Judaism. When Jewish ritual is normative in a household, and embraced positively, that leaves an impression.

To a parent who asks “what can I do so that my kids will be Jewish when they grow up?” my answer is “Have Shabbat dinner at home every week, and make sure that you enjoy it.”

When children see the adults in their lives embracing Jewish life in meaningful ways, that becomes a model for themselves.

Imagine a child complains “why do I have to go to Hebrew school? It’s so boring.”

If the answer is “I know it’s boring, but you’re going because I had to go when I was your age,” what do you think that child is going to take from the experience?

Think about how different the lesson would be if the answer is: “because learning is a really important part of Judaism, and religious school is where you go to learn. I am learning by reading such and such a book, or taking such and such a class.”

So many Jewish adults today ended their formal Jewish education right after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. So many parents never had a chance to engage formally as adults with our rich tradition.

If we want our kids to embrace Jewish life as adults, the answer is not forcing them to do it as a necessary rite of passage. We have to embrace Jewish life ourselves, and then we can invite our kids to join us.

If the midrash connecting Aholiav and Hiram is true, I would imagine that the children of the tribe of Dan saw their parents engaging in fine craftsmanship from a young age. They saw adults having meaningful conversations about metalwork and embroidery. They saw uncles and aunts, neighbors, and elders showing and admiring one another’s work.

The young Danites attended formal and informal classes where they learned the basics of artistry, and then entered into apprenticeships as teen-agers, before finally opening up shops of their own as master craftsmen.

By creating such a culture, the great great great great great grandson or nephew of the number two artisan in the construction of the Tabernacle was privileged to serve as one of the primary architects of King Solomon’s Temple.

 

*1*Exodus 38:23

*2*BT Arachin 16b

*3*II Chronicles 2:13

*4*BT Kiddushin 82b

*5*Torah Temimah on Exodus 31:6