Bah Mitzvah of Sam Watling
This Shabbat we are marking the moment when Sam Watling becomes Bar Mitzvah – literally, a ‘Son of the Commandment’ – and so becomes a link in a chain of tradition that goes back two millennia to the time of the first rabbis, who decreed that at age twelve and thirteen respectively, girls and boys, become obligated to undertake adult Jewish responsibilities.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah, then, is a rite of passage – not unlike those practised in other cultures. But there is a crucial difference: This Shabbat Sam has stood before us at the lectern, and led the service – beautifully, I’m sure we all agree – and in a short while I will call him ‘up’ to the bimah to read a section of the portion of the week – the parashah – from the Seifer Torah – the sacred scroll of the Five Books, which lies at the heart of Jewish teaching; becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not a collective experience; young Jews become links in the chain of tradition, one by one.
And so we have an interesting paradox: on the one hand, the sense of weighty, ancient communal obligation; on the other hand, the individual young Jew, celebrated as a unique human being.
Jewish life and teaching is defined by such paradoxes: on the one hand, Judaism seems preoccupied with particular rites and practices centred on the particular destiny of the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and of those who experienced liberation from ‘the house of bondage’ and met the Eternal One at Sinai; on the other hand, the ideas and values of Judaism flow from an understanding that as God is one, so the world is one – and humanity is one; each human being a unique ‘image of God’ (Genesis 1:27).
The collective and the individual; the particular and the universal: No chapter in the long odyssey of the Jewish people illustrates these paradoxes better than the tale of the Exodus from Egypt: the story of the Israelites’ redemption over three thousand years ago, as the slaves in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries understood so well, carries the hope for all oppressed peoples; the story of a collective triumph, yet one that centres on the heroism of particular individuals: the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, Miriam, and her mother, Yocheved, Moses and Aaron.
And there is another paradox: past and present. Can you think of any other tale, whose messages are as relevant today as they were at the time of the events they describe, long, long ago? It’s not just that, to our shame and sorrow, oppression is still rife in the world. The point is that the tale of the Exodus, which reaches its climax in this week’s portion, Bo, can still teach us so much about the nature of oppression and liberation.
Just think of what we learn from it:
- Moses confronted Pharaoh: oppression is wrong and must be challenged
- The midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, and Moses’ mother and sister, Miriam and Yocheved, defied Pharaoh’s decree to exterminate the baby boys: for a people to be liberated, individuals need to find their courage and take the risk to be free
- Egypt was bombarded with a succession of ‘plagues’: the process of liberation from oppression involves conflict and struggle – and often, violence
- The slaves daubed their doorways with blood, and so saved themselves from the final plague: to become free the oppressed must participate in their own liberation
- ‘Let my people go that they may serve Me’: Liberation is not just about achieving freedom from oppression, but having the freedom to live in new ways
- The slaves left Egypt to journey through the wilderness: true liberation means transformation and making a new beginning in a new terrain
- The Exodus happened: liberation from oppression is always possible; the slaves, whoever they are, in every place and in every time, will go free
These are just some of the key lessons of the Exodus, which are as relevant now as they were then. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – however much we repeat the tale of the Exodus, both during our weekly Torah readings, and around the Pesach seder table, have we learned them yet? And by ‘we’ I don’t just mean, Jews; the Exodus story has become part of the tale of humanity; not just ‘our’ story, it is familiar to the two and a half billion Christians, across the world today. As we recite the litany of tyranny in every place – and remember that before the poor people of Haiti were devastated by the recent earthquake, they were oppressed and impoverished by a despotic regime – aren’t we forced to acknowledge that we simply haven’t learned the lessons of the Exodus – at least, not yet…
Which is where Sam comes in…Now, Sam – I’m not about to suggest that you, single-handedly, can make the difference: that having studied what your Torah portion teaches about slavery and liberation, you are about to go out into the world, like a latter-day Moses… On the other hand, I am saying that you – you, Sam Watling – with your unique set of qualities and abilities can make a difference – a big difference. After all, Moses didn’t do it on his own – and that’s the point: We – collectively – can change the world, and the deadly habits of persecution we keep repeating, but only if each one of us resolves to act – like Shifrah and Pu’ah and Miriam and Yocheved and Moses and Aaron – and all the individual Israelites, who marked out their houses for redemption, girded their loins, and dashed for freedom – with their half-baked dough.
Sam: today is for you an Exodus of sorts: no you haven’t been kept in chains – although being a child without control over your life can probably feel a bit like that at times – but today, as you become Bar Mitzvah, you are making a radical departure from childhood, and beginning your journey into adulthood – your own particular journey: and you have made it happen; in fact it was your determination to learn about Judaism and lead a Jewish life that brought you here with your dad to participate in the life of this congregation.
When I asked you what being Jewish means to you, you told me that being part of a Jewish community is, and I quote, ‘of great importance in my life’ and that you value the ‘nice, trusting impartial people’ you have encountered. For you ‘the synagogue’, in particular, ‘means’, in your own words, ‘a brilliant and thriving community where I can study [and] enhance my religious views and understanding… Every time I go to synagogue I learn new things, meet new people and have a pleasant time.’ Having found a home here, Sam, for you becoming Bar Mitzvah ‘signals’, as you put it, ‘the start of a journey, not just in my Jewish life but in my whole one; it means I am old enough to be more independent, and ready to make choices for myself . Though it does not mean I am a man, it does mean that I am becoming one as I mature and become more responsible for my actions.’ You recognise that you have become more secure in making your ‘own decisions’, and ‘more confident’. You also acknowledge that, as you expressed it, ‘developing my own opinions means that I argue more and become more hot-headed , especially with [my] parents.’ Well, Sam – your parents are not the first to experience the delights of their child becoming a ‘teenager’!
Sam: You have already started on your journey – but as you have demonstrated since you joined this congregation, your journey is not just about you: your determination to learn and play your part in Jewish life is palpable. And not just in Jewish life: Your ambition is, as you put it, ‘to work in economics (maybe international development) because I have a flare for it and find it fascinating – the facts, the figures – and how it can affect us… in a volatile world, reeling from a housing bubble. With years of austerity and slow growth predicted [economics] is incredibly useful. It can also be used to help lift people out of poverty in developing countries by providing jobs (for the right things in the right places) and money.’ Sam, your passion and your vision shines through your words – so I’m going to quote you some more: ‘I care about justice, the planet and the right of everyone to be informed properly. I hate false accusations and believe that justice for whatever crime should be dealt out, even if it means upsetting some people. Likewise I believe that the planet is important and is very undervalued and mal-treated. If everyone was properly informed … so many of the world’s problems would be stopped, for it is lack of information that leads to ignorance, and ignorance can be exploited into things far worse. To improve the world everyone must care more about others and be less ignorant. We must… work together, whatever culture, faith or petty values. We have to realise that everyone is just as important and that just a small thing here can make a big difference somewhere else. We have to give to charity , lobby the government for things such as helping the developing world feed its people, stand up for the climate and human rights, even if it costs us economically and politically. ‘
Sam – you said it! Drawing on the support of your parents and the guidance you have received from your teachers, and, in particular, from your tutor, Andy, you have learned that becoming engaged as a Jew and participating in Jewish life is about being true to yourself and valuing your own uniqueness. You have also made connections between your individual life and the lives of others and so, have already learnt some of the crucial lessons of the Exodus. In the Babylonian Talmud, the compendium of rabbinic law and commentary edited in Babylon – present-day Iraq – around 500CE, we read in the tractate Kiddushin (40b):
The world is judged by the majority of its people, and an individual is judged by the majority of their deeds. Happy the person who performs a good deed: that may tip the scales for themselves and for the world.
Sam, as you begin your journey into adulthood, my hope for you is that you continue to be yourself: an individual Jew ready to make a difference for yourself and for the world. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
23rd January 2010 – 8th Sh’vat 5770