This Shabbat morning, we are celebrating a very special moment: Joshua’s coming-of-age as he becomes Bar Mitzvah and begins his journey towards Jewish adulthood. Joshua has studied very hard for this day – focusing on key areas of Jewish learning that demonstrate that the Jewish inheritance now belongs to him. And so, in preparing to lead the service, Joshua has practised reading it – in Hebrew and English – and he has also studied a section from this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’a lot’cha – in Hebrew and English – and learnt to read that section in the way that it appears in the Sefer Torah, the scroll – without vowels or punctuation. Joshua has already led the first part of the service beautifully and in a short while, he will give his D’var Torah, his commentary and read the Sefer Torah.
My mother always told me that she learned more from her children than she felt that we had ever learned from her. I think that when families gather to celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, parents often realise that as they see their son or daughter standing before them that she or he is teaching them something very important about what it means to take responsibility for the Jewish heritage entrusted to us. Of course, in the context of a progressive synagogue that is a proud constituent of Liberal Judaism, taking responsibility for the Jewish heritage is not a matter of simple acceptance. On the contrary, it involves grappling and struggling with our Jewish source-texts, principally with the Torah, the five sacred books of Moses, and wresting meaning from them for our lives today. As you will see shortly, Joshua’s D’var Torah does just that.
Of course, to do this requires commitment: the commitment of time and energy – and a very particular commitment to the language of the Torah. As I think I have demonstrated again and again, when we have the monthly Beit Midrash service, and shorten the liturgy to give more space to studying the weekly portion in depth: the Hebrew text contains meanings that it is virtually impossible for the English translation to convey. The chapter that Joshua has studied from this week’s parashah is a case in point. We read in the English translation at Numbers chapter 12, verse one, ‘Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses….’ The original Hebrew tells us something else: Va-t’dabbeir Miriam – v’Aharon – b’Moshe. There are two words in the short phrase that convey information not represented adequately by the English. First, the more obvious one: Va-t’dabbeir means ‘She spoke’. If Miriam and Aaron had spoken together, the Hebrew would have been, Va-y’dabb’ru, they spoke. So, we learn from this – and Joshua is going to elaborate more fully on the chapter in his D’var Torah – that Miriam was the instigator, while Aaron went along with her.
The other Hebrew word that gets lost in translation is more subtle: b’Moshe. ‘Against Moshe’ is a reasonable translation in the context of the challenge against Moses that follows. However, the consonant, Beit, sounding, ‘b’, placed before Moses’ name actually conveys a range of meanings. Technically, it is a preposition that usually means, either, ‘in’, ‘with’ or ‘by’. In the context, it would make no sense to say, ‘in Moses’ or ‘by Moses’, but one could translate b’Moshe as, ‘with Moses’. What difference would it make to the meaning if we translated the phrase: ‘Miriam – and Aaron – spoke with Moses’?
Later on in the chapter, as we shall see, much is made of the Eternal speaking with Moses, peh-el-peh – ‘mouth to mouth’ (12:8), which only goes to highlight that when it comes to Miriam and Aaron speaking b’Moshe, the word ‘against’ rather than ‘with’ is more appropriate. But in making this translation, it is worth noting that the more usual preposition to denote the state of being ‘against’ is the separable particle, ‘al’ – which also means, ‘upon’, ‘concerning’ or ‘about’. Al is not usually used in connection with the verb, to speak, but if the text had said, al-Moshe, it would have been much more obvious that Miriam – and Aaron – were speaking ‘against’ – in opposition to – their younger brother. As we find in Korach, the portion that we will read in two weeks’ time, at Numbers chapter 16 verse three, concerning the rebellion of Korach, Datan, Aviram and On, and their followers: ‘They assembled against Moses and against Aaron’ – Va-yikkahalu al-Moshe v’al-Aharon.
So why, isn’t the more obvious preposition, ‘al’, used of Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to Moses? Korach was assembling against his first cousins. In our portion today, Miriam and Aaron are speaking against their younger brother. It’s a more delicate situation. After all, without Miriam’s intervention Moses’ life would not have been saved when he was a baby lying in that basket in the reeds of the Nile. She cared for him and protected him. And Aaron: well he does have an important role to play in the leadership as Moses’ spokesperson, and later High Priest – so, no wonder, Miriam takes the lead. But they are not engaged in open rebellion. Like any siblings, they have issues with each other, and, like any siblings, their relationship with one another is ambivalent. They are with Moses – and also against him; they speak with him and also against him. Hence: Va-t’dabbeir Miriam – v’Aharon – b’Moshe.
The Hebrew language is much more succinct than English; fewer words convey more meaning. The range of meanings conveyed by the single preposition, ‘b’ – ‘in’, ‘with’, ‘by’, ‘against’ – teaches us that everything is in the context. And it also teaches us to be attuned to subtle nuances and be aware of the complex dimensions that characterise human relationships. The Jewish thinker and commentator, Martin Buber, spoke of how easy it is for a connection between two people that has the potential to be a real meeting of ‘I and Thou’ to degenerate into ‘I and It – the objectification of the other. In exploring with you the range of meaning contained in a modest Hebrew letter, it is not my intention, simply, to demonstrate the importance of learning Hebrew! How often, when two people or more are interacting, do we fail to speak with one another – to speak together, to share thoughts, to listen and respond? Perhaps, it is only in rare moments that we are engaged in speaking against the other person – albeit, masked by mannered niceties or an ironic tone. But how often, do we find ourselves speaking to another person, rather than with them?
In Hebrew, ‘to’, another preposition, is represented by the consonant Lameid, ‘l’ – which, unsurprisingly, also has another meaning: ‘for’. Again: how often do we speak to someone or for someone, rather than with the other person? The Torah makes it clear that speaking to another or others, usually expresses a unilateral, hierarchical relationship, using the inseparable form of ‘l’ – ‘el’ – to denote the Eternal One speaking to Moses, and Moses, in turn, speaking to the people. And so we read again and again: Va-y’dabbeir Adonai el-Moshe – ‘The Eternal One spoke to Moses’ – a refrain repeated in the Torah thousands of times.
There are so many contexts which hold the potential for ‘I and Thou’ or ‘I and It’ connections between people. Traditionally, the teacher-student relationship is a very special one in Jewish life. The first rabbinic code of Jewish law, the Mishnah, edited around 200 CE, and the commentaries on the Mishnah, by subsequent generations of scholars, which form the G’mara, record discussions between peers and also between teachers and their students. Sometimes, those discussions were fractious and individuals pulled rank, but more often, they involved respectful acknowledgement of differences of opinion. In any event, all variant opinions were recorded and not just those of the majority. Today as we are celebrate a special milestone in Joshua’s life, we are also marking the completion of a journey of learning that has involved a special relationship between Joshua and his tutor, Harry. In this relationship, both teacher and student have been learners. They have spoken with one another, rather than the tutor simply speaking to his student. Joshua is very appreciative of what he has learned from Harry, and also with Harry, and I know that Harry feels likewise.
In preparation for today, I asked Joshua to think about his life and what it means for him to be Jewish and become Bar Mitzvah. Reading his reflections, I was struck by the way in which he used the word with – and I quote: ‘Being Jewish means being part of my community on a smaller scale, but also that I share something with people all over the world. It also means I have the whole world of my religion to explore and join in with traditions and such things like that.’ He also said what he enjoys most is – and again I quote: ‘Being with people I care about and having fun, also exploring new things or things that interest me.’
Joshua: you are someone who appreciates your relationships. Reflecting on what becoming Bar Mitzvah means to you, your response underlines how important connecting with others is to you. In your own words: ‘it means I have passed a major point in my life which is very important to me and that after the whole process has been completed I will be part of the worldwide Jewish community even more deeply.’ For you, being part of the Jewish people, across the world, begins with your shul. As you put it: ‘The synagogue has always been a place I can call home and it’s community, my family. Even with [the] move, it is still a special place.’
You are thoughtful person, Joshua. You have got so much out of your Bar Mitzvah studies, and you’re also a good student in general, who loves to learn. As you put it, ‘I really enjoy the creativity in Drama. I also really like Science because there are always new things to learn and explore and you can keep asking “why” until you are satisfied. My favourite subjects also include Latin, because I like to see how things have changed over time, and RS, because I like to explore ideas in a deeper way.’ Joshua, over the past year you have explored your Jewish inheritance ‘in a deeper way’ and you have also, in your own words, ‘become a lot more mature and more capable of taking on new things. With this in mind, I look forward to the years to come.’
Joshua: it is wonderful that you look forward to the years to come. You have already thought about what you’d like to do – and I quote: ‘On a career basis, I would like to be a director. I have already had a taste of this and I really enjoyed it. I would also like to carry on with some other of my favourite subjects, if not as a career, as a hobby.’ But I think it’s very significant that as you look forwards, your thoughts also turn to being with people – and because you value others, to being yourself. As you put it, ‘I care about the people who make me happy and the things I do to make myself happy.’ When you think about the future, you want, and I quote, ‘to convey a message to as many people as possible that hopefully helps people see what they are doing wrong for the world community, meanwhile doing all in my power from my position to make the world safer and brighter for everyone in it.’ And at the same time, you are grounded in your day-to-day world and relationships – as you put it: ‘I hope I also continue to enjoy time with my family and friends and continue having as much fun as possible.’
Joshua: your family, your friends, your community – everyone who knows you – is very proud of you as you begin your journey towards adulthood. I know I speak for them all when I echo your words: May you continue to have as much fun as possible. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalomv Ve’rei’ut
25th May 2013 – 16th Sivan 5773
 I and Thou by Martin Buber. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1937.