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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
Bar Mitzvah of Joseph Colin
Joseph, it must have been with a slight groan that you and Grandpa realised that your birthdate coincided with a Bar Mitzvah sidrah from Vayikra – the Book of Leviticus. Indeed, as I began my research for this sermon I too was somewhat underwhelmed by the lack commentaries of our Sages, Rabbis, philosophers and theologians: Their cogitating exhausted by the descriptions of the ceremonies for the ordination or investiture of the priests described in Exodus 29:1-37.
Then came the ‘man who fell to earth’ to save the day. I am of course talking about David Bowie who starred in the 1976 British science fiction movie of that title. This week you could not avoid the man without him being there himself. For years he had not performed, given interviews or been snapped by the paparazzi. Yet every media station covered the release of his first album in a decade and trailered the Victoria & Albert Museum’s record advance ticket sales exhibition of his archive that opens today. Radio 4 competed with the other more popular stations to cover the phenomena, from the point of arts and culture, finance, marketing and technology. This is a case study that will hit many university courses: And the man is still not present.
As well as being an exemplar in the field of marketing, it perhaps also demonstrates at least for David Bowie, the danger of being in the limelight of being drawn forward. He was at his most creative, alluring and meaningful when he was aloof and perhaps the coincidence of his most critically acclaimed work since his hibernation is poignant.
The Book of Leviticus is about everything that we draw forward or near to. The offerings are called korbanot and here Moses vayakrayv – brought forward Aaron and his sons. Both words come from the Hebrew root kuf-resh-tet that denotes nearness, closeness. Here Aaron and sons are clearly being presented rather than sacrificed but perhaps something of their beings is sacrificed in the process.
The fact that they have to be brought forward can signify to us, if not reluctance then some trepidation at the seriousness, the acute importance and burden of the task: The feeling we experience before we get on stage, chair a meeting, or put ourselves forward, our physical presence or our thought. The enormity of the task of the High Priest and his sons, as custodians of a nation’s relationships with their God is heightened, as they are dressed. This is evidenced in the tragic demise of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu who are killed at the instance of God for not following the strictures of the process, zapped for offering ‘alien fire:’ A tragedy of two young men adorned and enthusiastic, a perfect theme for a David Bowie staging.
Shabbat HaGadol heralds the coming of Pesach – the Passover – when Jews around the world will gather in their homes to celebrate their freedom through the motif of the Exodus from Egypt.
When you ask Jewish children and most adults what their favourite Jewish festival is when you get past the fact that one gets presents at Chanukah, most will cite Pesach. There is a wonderful nostalgia attached to the festival. The connection to a People who have survived oppression and slavery in many generations and in many more have celebrated and thanked God for their freedom and the gift of being together; and more personally, the times of reuniting the family.
We draw near to each other in a unique expression of identity and familial ties. Often this is done with some trepidation. It is all too clear who is not present, for we recall those who once graced our table but have died or who are separated by family broigus or more recently, those who live and work abroad. We add these trials to those that our ancestors endured. We remember and we are bidden the opportunity to reflect and explore our own actions. We are given the chance for reconciliation or to be reconciled with our fate.
We are drawn to each other perhaps in changed ways. The parent-child relationship may have changed as we realise that the child who once recited the Ma Nishtana is now grown and free to make their ways and choices in life. There may be new children at the table who bring all their and our potential hopes and fears; and in latter years of life, the relationship has shifted in ways that we perhaps are still learning and maybe will only ever learn by experience, how to approach. Ma Nishtana – why is this night different to all others? Because it always must be different for this is our life and the length of our days.
It is not only ourselves who must draw near, bring our whole selves to the seder table. The haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol reminds us that God also is drawn near. Before I gift you tranquillity, “I will step forward to contend against you;” Together with God’s messenger, for that is what Malachi means – my messenger – maybe a prophet, maybe Ezra or perhaps Elijah. I will encourage you through the themes of the seder to consider your life and that of all who are drawn around you. Through this haftarah, God is a patient parent as Yehoshua Engelman has pointed out: hearing the disputations, the arguments, the challenges and rebellions of the People. Keeping them at the table until, “Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you...to reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.”
By allowing God and Elijah to draw near, we give permission for them to contain all our tsurus and look beyond ourselves. To allow others to draw near, those who have no family to be with. It is our invitations to others, to allow us to be an extended family that defines our being. Let all who are hungry come and eat: Those who need physical sustenance and those whose spirits will be sustained by hearing a child’s voice, tunes and words that provoke lost memories and allow the act of being drawn near in relationship to another.
We read in the Psalms, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness (Ps 45:5).” The Rabbis in Vayikra Rabbah associated this verse to various biblical characters whom they felt merited such an appellation, of being an anointed one: One ordained to act on behalf of their community. Aaron and his sons were brought forward by Moses to be anointed, Joseph, your grandfather was brought forward to serve this community for approaching 50 years. By his and your grandma’s example, and that of all who nurtured me here, I was bought forth also to serve.
Your mother and father have been exemplars of giving people in the community and also those who draw others near, just as your great-grandparents were in their Synagogue and Jewish Community in Birmingham. Yet none of us had to draw you here. You have very much come of your own volition, choosing to be engaged with this community, to be part of an exceptional friendship group, and occasionally to do a little study. Today, you are the one who is anointed and through you your family and community are also anointed with the blessing of having been drawn near to you, our cup overflows.
May it always be said of you that, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness (Ps 45:5).” And may it be said of all of us, that by allowing ourselves to be drawn near, to our family, to our community and to those who need us to be near to, we have all experienced this oil of gladness.
Keyn y’hi l’ratzon – may it be God’s will.
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