This past Shabbat we read the Torah portion Ki Tisa. The Plaut commentary notes, “This part of Exodus deals with the Tabernacle and the service that will take place within,” including skilled artisans to complete the work. Of course this portion also contains the drama of the Golden Calf, and the breaking of the tablets. And all of this follows from the previous week, during which we learned about how we have been commanded to provide eternal light to our communities.
Over the past few weeks, I have been honored to watch several young artisans bring their own special gifts of light to their respective synagogues. I attended my great-nephew’s bar mitzvah in Fort Worth, the bar mitzvah of my grandson in Austin, and the bar mitzvah of a dear friend’s grandson in Dallas. Each young man led the service, chanted his portion and wisely taught his community -- one Conservative, two Reform. Each one brought his own style and understanding to the portion, and each commented on the mitzvah performed and how doing acts of loving kindness had impacted him.
Watching this new generation hold, struggle, reflect and relate to the Torah brought me to tears, as I remembered when my own son was a bar mitzvah here and proclaimed to his parents that he wanted the new “woman rabbi” to conduct his ceremony. That decision brought numerous comments from the members of our family who were definitely not Reform. He had always been the child who tested us at every level, and my grandson, Braden, has the same spirit.
Although Braden was presented with his own tallit, he chose to remove it for the ceremony and wear the sacred tallit of his late grandfather, whom he never met. His action created a positive glow, acknowledging and recognizing those who were not actually present.
Braden is a young man who does not easily accept a single answer to any question he poses to you, but requires “proof text” to the answers he seeks. He approached his bar mitzvah training with the same challenge to his teachers, requiring them to prove the relevance of Torah in the modern world. He noted that the “miracles” in the stories could easily be proven through scientific theory. However, with patient instruction and committed educators, my grandson began to feel comfortable that Torah can provide us with a balance between the spiritual and the scientific.
A 2006 article published by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies noted, “In the modern world, the claim that every word of Torah is literally the word of God doesn’t always ring true. Many American Jews affirm that Torah is in some sense divine, but not necessarily word-for-word, and many insist that life experience and secular learning also can contribute to our knowledge of God.”
As Braden continued to study, he came to discover that the knowledge of God meant being “God’s partners” and making a difference in our world. His mitzvah project raised money to bring clean water to Haiti. As part of the project, Braden decorated reusable water bottles that were given to donors for gifts of at least $10, helping to save our landfills, and providing dollars to restore much needed clean water to the earthquake victims in Haiti. One water bottle at a time, he was able to relate the scientific tremor in Haiti to our being God’s partner in repairing the world.
The Ziegler article continued, “Maimonides once noted that theology can only be taught to one person at a time; not to a class, but with one teacher who can focus on one student.” That theory certainly rang true for me when Braden’s teacher looked directly at him and announced to all of us, “You definitely were a challenge!” However, he went on to say that their journey of learning one-on-one taught both of them that one answer is never enough when we are seeking our own relationship with God.
Braden’s journey is not over and my guess is that he will encounter his own Golden Calf moments on his way from adolescence to adulthood. However, his bar mitzvah experience—together with the light his community brings to his life and his new understanding of where science and spirituality merge—will, I hope, provide him with a foundation to make worthwhile choices.
So Shabbat is coming, and I have yet another bar mitzvah to attend this weekend. As I look up at the unbroken tablets that adorn our Tabernacle and see the ner tamid fully lit, I will reflect on my relationship with God, which is both private and communal. I will give thanks, too, for I am quite certain that we will be in good hands as this next generation brings their gifts of light into our communities.
Marcia Grossfeld is the Small Congregations Network Director for the URJ.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons