I’d like to take a trip down memory lane with you as we travel 40 years back in time. It was the summer of America’s bicentennial celebration. Gerald Ford was President, and the album Frampton Comes Alive hit the #1 spot on the pop charts. The dramatic Israeli rescue of hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda made the headlines, while final preparations were underway for the 1976 summer Olympics, in which the gold medal for the decathlon went to a talented 22 year-old athlete named Bruce Jenner. The detective show Baretta was in its second season, the comedy All in the Family was in its fifth, and that fall would mark the debut of Charlie’s Angels.
That summer of 1976 I also celebrated my bar mitzvah. Across the traverse of four decades, there are many things about the event I no longer remember. I’m a little embarrassed to confess this, but I recall nothing of the charge that my father, of blessed memory, gave me from the bimah (if only he had written it down!). I also don’t recollect the words of the synagogue’s president, who presented me with my gifts.
Still, I do recall the subject of my d’var Torah on Parshat Shelah, and remember the Herb Rose Orchestra, the band that played at my Sunday afternoon party. At some point during the celebration they played the “Hustle”, which was all the rage that summer, and I got to dance with the girl on whom I had a crush at the time — in her platform shoes she seemed at least eight inches taller than I was; her name was Susan Lester (guess I’ve always had a thing for girls named Susan!).
Yet soon enough the party ended and the guests were gone. In the gathering dusk of a late June day, I found myself out of sorts and feeling blue. There had been months of anticipation and preparation leading up to the event, a countdown in which my excitement grew in proportion to the ever shorter interval of time before the big day. I felt like someone who had waited months to dine at a celebrated restaurant, who had dreamed of eating his favorite dish, only to discover that the build-up far exceeded the reality — not because the experience wasn’t pleasurable, but that its brevity paled in comparison to the excitement leading up to the moment.
But there was another reason I felt blue that early summer evening 40 years ago, one which I did not consciously grasp until many years later. The Shabbat of my bar mitzvah was my father’s last weekend as a pulpit rabbi. Six years earlier, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at an usually young age. He soldiered on, enrolling in various medical trials, benefiting from a new drug at the time called Levadopa, and serving our congregation, the Greenburgh Hebrew Center, as best he could. Yet there was — and still is — no cure for Parkinson’s; treatment can temporarily alleviate the symptoms, but does nothing to halt the progression of the disease. It became clear to my dad in the months before my bar mitzvah that his days on the pulpit were numbered. He could choose to retire with dignity, or wait to be asked to do so when he could no longer work. At the age of 53 — the same age that I am now — he decided the time had come to step down. In his mind, what could possibly be a more meaningful way to mark the occasion than to spend his last Shabbat on the bimah officiating at his only child’s bar mitzvah?
My father was much beloved by his congregation, and he cherished his vocation. Had he been granted good health and vigor, he would have served the synagogue for many more years. Even in the most desirable scenario, when a rabbi retires at an advanced age after many years of fruitful service to the same congregation, there is still an element of bitter-sweetness: there is the undeniable realization that a page has been turned, that a chapter in life’s book has ended. How much more so for my father! Turning the Shabbat of his premature retirement into a celebration of his only child’s coming-of-age made joy, rather than unbearable sadness, the leitmotiv of the occasion.
When I was 13 I didn’t really think about this; nor did my parents discuss the decision with me. It was only as an adult that I realized how upset my father’s decision made me. What should have been a moment of unadulterated joy was ringed by impending clouds of darkness. I always knew the shul would be packed the day of my bar mitzvah not because of me, but because I was the rabbi’s son — and I accepted that as a simple fact of life. But coming to celebrate a happy event in the rabbi’s family is very different than coming to the bar mitzvah of the rabbi’s kid to say goodbye to the rabbi. 15 years after the fact I found myself wishing that he had postponed his last Shabbat in the pulpit by at least a week.
Over the years I came to forgive my dad for making my bar mitvah his last weekend in the pulpit. Eventually I even forgave myself for feeling guilty about my subconscious anger, which seemed so selfish and unfeeling given all that he struggled with at the time.
Life teaches us by way of our biographies; they are blank textbooks which God furnishes us with when we enter this world. The lesson I learned from my bar mitzvah was that, in the words of John Lennon’s song, Beautiful Boy, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
The illusion we create for ourselves is to treat milestone events in isolation from our lives; like islands in a sea of time, we act as though our red letter days have no connection to the mainland of our existence. With the perspective that time and maturity bring, I now understand that my father’s illness and my celebration were all part of a single landscape, inextricably intertwined in the reality of life lived. The truth is nothing of substance would have changed had we celebrated my big day a week or two earlier or later.
Yedaya Penini, a Provençal Jewish poet and philosopher who lived at the turn of the 14th century, once wrote: “ כי חֶבְרַת הזמן מֵצִלְלֵי ערב מהירת הנטוּיָה — The companionship of time is of but short duration; it flies more quickly than the shades of evening. כעלם יֶאֱסֹף אל ידו נציץ השמש מְלֹא קֻמצוֹ, וּבפִתחוֹ עומד מֻרְעָד, כי איננו רואה אל כל מהומה בידו — We are like a child that grasps a sunbeam in his hand. He opens his fist soon again, but, to his amazement, finds his hand empty and the brightness gone” (Behinot Olam §4). We invest countless hours, time and energy into focusing on life’s liminal moments. Yet in a few hours the bat mitzvah is over and it’s back to 7th grade; the honeymoon ends and the couple returns to the work-a-day world.
The illusion with which we live is that these threshold moments are themselves game-changers, as if the very act of preparing for and celebrating them is transformational. How often do parents or clergy talk to kids at their b’nai mitzvah about their increased responsibilities . . . only to see them disappear from the radar screen of Jewish life immediately afterward? Weddings are magical moments, but a 30-minute ceremony followed by four hours of dinner and dancing neither eliminate the potential strains nor enhance the strengths within a spousal relationship. With hard work and the blessing of time, a couple will grow together; but as is sometimes the case, they may also end up in divorce court. Either way, the canapes, the toasts, the band, or even the beauty of the rabbi’s charge under the huppah won’t determine in the slightest the fate of a marriage.
A life cycle event is but a day in a person’s life; it is a symbol of something far larger, but not, as the philosopher Kant put it, the ding an sich, the-thing-in-itself. Yet in a world of instant gratification, however, we forget this fundamental truth by incorrectly identifying our milestone events as the agents of change, rather than as symbols of the hard work we must undertake to create real change in our lives.
This is why at critical moments of life we can end up asking the wrong questions or emphasizing the wrong things. When those engaged to be married first meet with me, they are generally more focused on the ceremony than on the premarital counseling I require of a couple who asks me to officiate. Their first question is, “How will long will it take, rabbi?” And I answer them with a smile, “A lifetime, at the very least.” They look puzzled, until I say, “You were asking about the wedding; I was talking about the marriage.” To this day I remain amazed, though no longer surprised, that a significantly larger percentage of couples spend far more time with their party planner than they do in premarital counseling.
By the same token, parents spend less time focused on their children being b’nai mitzvah than becoming b’nai mitzvah. Going to shul in the months or weeks before the event is not for the sake of getting more involved, but to see how the service works in advance of the big day. Tutoring isn’t to cement Jewish liturgical skills to use regularly after the celebration, but to perform competently the day of. Many years ago a parent expressed chagrin to me that her daughter wouldn’t be leading the shaharit service at her bat mitzvah. In my naivete I replied, “I’m so glad you want your child to learn more! After her bat mitzvah let’s start working on the morning service; I’m sure she’ll be ready to lead it within a month or two.” The mother looked at me as if I were slightly deranged: “Why would she be learning it after her bat mitzvah? By then it’ll be too late.”
This is my own “bar mitzvah year” at the Jacksonville Jewish Center. Time really does fly; it’s hard to believe I’m starting my 13th year as your rabbi. Forty years after my first bar mitzvah, I will celebrate my second with very little hair on my head, a greying beard, and a very different sensibility than the first time around.
Over the past 12+ years, thanks in large measure to you, I have grown tremendously as a rabbi and as a person. I’ve discovered strengths and talents that I never knew I had, confronted weaknesses and flaws that I knew were mine but sought to avoid, and learned a great deal, in part by learning how much I have yet to learn. Above all, however, I’ve come to believe with all my heart that there is no finish line in one’s vocation or personal life other than death . . . and maybe not even then. Ours is an ongoing journey in which we take two strides forward, and one step back; one step back and two strides forward. We make progress in one area, encounter a problem in another, halting onl until we find a way forward again. Within the congregation, staff comes and goes, there is continuity here, at least for awhile, but then discontinuity creeps in; new families join, others leave; beloved life-long members go to their to final rest. A wedding, a bat mitzvah, a get, a funeral, a bris . . . and then the cycle begins all over again in a different order. Transformation is a process that happens when we live life consciously and with mindfulness over an endless array of hills and valleys.
This isn’t just how synagogue life works, it’s how ALL life works. Between the moment of our birth and the instant of our death, we would lead far fuller and richer lives if we could embrace the journey and ditch that finish-line culture, which eats away at our time and distorts the real value of our milestones.
Ask any dieter: shedding pounds and achieving a weight-loss goal is the easy part, relatively speaking. Keeping off the pounds however, is the real challenge because it requires continuous effort. Graduating from high school or college with good grades takes work, to be sure, but it’s a piece of cake when compared to remaining a life-long learner without the metric of grades or deadlines. Far be it from me to knock the hard work kids put into preparing for their b’nai mitzvah, but learning to chant a Torah portion or haftorah and write a speech for an occasion that will take place on one day of a child’s life is a snap compared to making a never-ending, on-going commitment to be active and involved in Jewish life. Can you imagine a couple having a wedding just for the sake of the reception rather than because they actually want to spend life together? Yet countless Jewish families do something not so dissimilar when they view the value of their children’s Jewish education not in terms of life-long Jewish involvement, but through the lens of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony awaiting them at the finish line.
Looking back forty years, my first bar mitzvah didn’t make me committed a Jew; in fact, most of it was as ephemeral as dancing the Hustle with Susan Lester. Its lasting gifts, such as the ability to read Torah and chant haftorah, only found meaningful expression years later when I used that knowledge to further my Jewish journey. I didn’t think about any of that back in 1976. But this time around as I mark my rabbinic bar mitzvah at the Jacksonville Jewish Center as a 53-year-old, I am keenly aware of how celebrations in the present are only as meaningful as their links to the yesterdays that preceded them and the tomorrows that are yet to be.
We are told by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy,”היום הרת עולם” which is often translated as “Today the world is born” or “Today is the world’s birthday.” But that’s not what the Hebrew phrase really means. More accurately translated, “היום הרת עולם” means “Today the world is pregnant” — pregnant with possibility. It is not a day when we celebrate the act of birth, but one in which we are given one more day of self-gestation to develop our talents, our strengths, our aspirations. “היום “הרת עולם applies to every single life cycle event — a bar or bat mitzvah is an act of spiritual conception measured by whether one’s Jewish identity is then carried to term; one’s wedding ceremony is also an act of spiritual conception measured by whether a couple’s commitment develops a soul life of its own.
Too much of the time we live our lives as passengers on a train; we are so busy getting to a destination that the travel itself appears secondary to reaching our stop. Yet if we were truly self-aware, we’d have to admit that the vast majority of our lifetime is spent in motion; when we stop at a given station, it’s no more than a moment or two before the doors close and the train moves on. And so we make a huge mistake, wasting our lives by ignoring the primacy of the journey; or even worse, by getting off at a stop and being stranded at a particular stage of development without the means to continue the journey toward our ultimate destination.
One of the most beloved of High Holy Day liturgical poems is sung toward the end of Musaf. It is known simply as Hayom, meaning “Today.” “היום תאמצנו, היום תברכנו . . . היום תדרשנו לטובה — Strengthen us — today; bless us — today; seek our well-being and inscribe us for a good life — today.” In Hayom we’re not asking God for time-released spiritual Sudafed, a prescription for 24-hour relief from the stress of living: “We want blessing, strength, and well-being, God, but only until 11:59 PM this evening.” Rather, we emphasize today because we long for a meaningful existence starting now, but not ending today, tomorrow, or even the day after that. Today is but a moment on that train ride between terminals, emblematic of its link to every other “today” that started out as a tomorrow and then became a yesterday.
Today I stand before you as a bar mitzvah rabbi who forty years ago was a bar mitzvah boy . . . and the line of an old Sam Levenson comedy routine from long before I was born runs through my head, “Today I am a fountain pen.” And you can, be too. Indeed, we can be fountain pens each and every day, writing our biographies and decreeing our destinies in the book of life which the Eternal opens in judgment “ותפתח את-ספר הזכרונות, ומאליו יקרא, וחותם יד כל-אדם בו — for You, God, open the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, for our own hand has signed the page,” as the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says.
Hayom. We have a decision to make about whether life’s milestones will be markers along the journey or become the journey itself. Today we hold in our hand the fountain pen that will create the next act of a meaningful life-script . . . or we can replace the cap, and stow the fountain pen of our potential in a desk drawer to gather dust as a souvenir, a neglected gift from long ago. Hayom we can look out the window of the train and marvel at the sights we are privileged to see. Choose to live well and today you, too, may be a fountain pen.