Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
We came from Albany, New York, Scottsdale Arizona, and Pensacola, Florida. We came from Washington, DC, Boston, Massachusetts, and New York, New York. We came from Las Vegas, Nevada, Fullerton, California, and Mexico City, Mexico. Like a people journeying to its promised land from the four corners of the earth, we converged upon beautiful Mobile, Alabama to celebrate with close friends of mine as their son became a bar mitzvah, a boy who is coming of age in the Jewish tradition. Representing our family from Albany, my son and I took a long journey down to the deep south, joining other dear family and friends to watch with pride as the boy took his own journey into adulthood through this time honored rite of passage. The weekend went perfectly. The young man led worship services, reciting the ancient Hebrew prayers with a southern drawl, thus fusing the sacred language of his ancestors with the warm, rich cadences of the wider world in which he lives and plays. His father is the rabbi of the synagogue where the ceremony took place. It gave me and my other colleagues who were there incredible pleasure to watch him be the proud father as well as the officiant, something that we clergy don’t often get to do for each other. Their Jewish community demonstrated its unparalleled blend of gracious southern hospitality and haimishness, the Yiddish word for warmth and hominess. “Shalom y’all,” the slightly exaggerated Hebrew greeting of peace peculiar to Jews of the south, was the order of the day. We worshipped together, we ate too much great food, we sang, laughed, and cried, as the boy’s extended family and friends surrounded him with love and pride, thanking God for enabling us to reach that special occasion.
A few months later, my entire family and I were privileged to celebrate with other close friends from rabbinical school days as their daughter became a bat mitzvah, a Jewish girl who is coming of age. Once again, family and friends converged on the synagogue in Washington, DC, where my friend –the girl’s father- is the rabbi. People came from all over the world to wish her well as she began her foray into adulthood, and once again we proudly sang, danced, ate, drank, and worshipped together.
Now that my son is preparing for becoming a bar mitzvah in the next year, I have been thinking a lot about the underlying meaning of these and similar life cycle celebrations. Specifically, who is the celebration really about? At one level, these ceremonies celebrate the life and achievements of the child in the presence of God and community. They are our way of saying to him or her, “We thank God for your having reached this point in your life, we wish you luck on the next leg of your journey, and we have expectations of you as an adult member of your faith wherever you go and whatever you do.” Yet at a deeper, though not too hidden, level these life cycle events are also an opportunity for extended family, parents in particular, to take a long look at what the dramas of their lives have wrought thus far. If our children are reflections of us, then bar and bat mitzvahs, communions, and confirmations are times when we look in the mirror to confront what is peering back, beauty, warts, and all. We invite our friends and family not only because we love them and want them to share in our joy, but also because they have been our supporting actors in our life dramas and they can affirm that we have acted well. We also need them to assure us that the best scenes in those dramas are yet to come, especially since our children’s growth means that we too are gradually aging and nearing death.
At both celebrations I attended, after morning worship and the Sabbath day luncheon were completed, many of the guests went home to rest before evening worship. A small group of us –mostly rabbis and spouses- sat around at a table singing the traditional, Sabbath melodies that are customary in Jewish tradition as the light of the Sabbath day starts to fade and the gradual transition to the new week begins. Drinking scotch whiskey slowly, we sang the twenty third psalm to a popular melody whose somber notes match the days’ serenity and our acknowledgement of the frail, imperfect world awaiting us beyond the protective walls of the Sabbath and those celebrations of life. We chanted my favorite line in the psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no harm, for You (God) are with me.” I have taught one meaning of this line many times to others: from the moment that we are born, we realize that every day of life is a walk in that valley. We are always conscious of the fact that death is shadowing us, and that each day that we live that shadow grows a bit longer.
Nonetheless, we can walk through life courageously, knowing that God’s presence fills our lives when we live with purpose and joy. Sitting with my friends, the proud parents, at their celebrations, and awaiting the time when I will be the proud parent, I now understand the words in a very personal manner. Yes, our children’s coming of age is one more marker that we have passed on our journeys through the valley. Yet we are passing those markers together as fellow travelers who will support each other along the way. Even as we grow older, our children –reflections of ourselves and made in God’s image as well- will take their own places on the journey and carry with them the values and love that are the durable legacies we have given them.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.