Do you remember what your Rabbi said to you on the day you became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah?
My guess is, probably not. I sure didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I wasn’t listening. I had (have!) a tremendous amount of respect for the now Rabbi Emeritus of our large suburban synagogue in Baltimore, Joel Zaiman. Rabbi Zaiman is a visionary community leader, a towering intellectual figure, and a mensch. And, like me, he put tremendous thought and effort into the words he carefully chose to impart to his students on the day they became Jewish adults. After all, how many times do you really have the full attention of a twelve or thirteen-year-old for a solid three to five minutes?
But, as interested as I was in what he had to say that morning, the truth is that I was only capable of internalizing some of the words he shared. His message to me was complex, a product of his keen insight into both my personality and my Judaism. And though I look back, quite fondly, on that day with gratitude and appreciation for its importance in my religious identity, it is a with a certain haze, obscured by the fogginess of memory.
This past Shabbat, was the 25th anniversary of my Bar-Mitzvah. I happened to spend a few hours last week at my parents’ home, on my way to Washington, D.C. for a meeting. Knowing that I would be chanting haftarah to mark the occasion, I dug through their basement storage closet in search of the speech I gave, in the hopes of sharing with some of my thirteen-year-old wisdom with our community during services. Though I didn’t find the speech, I did find an audio tape recording of the entire morning which popped into our Radio Shack cassette player (circa 1996).
There was so much I had forgotten. I had forgotten that my father led Shacharit that morning. That both my mother and brother read Torah. That my voice ever sounded like that! And finally, though I have a very clear memory of standing face to face with Rabbi Zaiman on the bimah as he looked me in the eyes and imparted a lofty message that seemed terribly important at the time, the content of the message left my teenage brain all too quickly, only to be rediscovered two and half decades later by a thirty-eight-year-old man, now a rabbi himself.
What did he say to me? Something that is indeed, terribly important—and more relevant now for me than it has ever been in my life. And while the content of his message is uniquely personal to me, there is a deeper, more universal truth in the fact that it took me twenty-five years to really grasp it.
One of my favorite teachings from Pirkei Avot is found at the end of chapter five: Ben Bag Bag would say – turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.
The it, of course, is Torah, which we received anew last Sunday morning as we reenacted its revelation at Sinai during our celebration of Shavuot. Why do we have to keep turning it? Because what it means to us a child or a teenager is very different than what it means to a new father or an aging grandmother. We learn from a very young age that our Torah is a precious thing, that it contains abiding wisdom that has sustained the Jewish people for four thousand years. And yet, so often, when we first encounter it, all we can sense is its importance. Comprehending and appreciating its meaning is something that can take years or even decades, but when its words finally ring true, when the circumstances of your life encounter the words on the page and bring them to life, nothing works better than it.