BAR MITZVAH ANNIVERSARY
“[God] will favor you and bless you and multiply you—blessing your issue from the womb and your produce from the soil, your new grain and wine and oil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock, in the land sworn to your fathers to be assigned to you.” (Deuteronomy 7:13)
This week’s portion has a special place in my heart. Sixty years ago, I became a bar mitzvah the week of parshat Ekev. The Bar Mitzvah took place in a small Conservative synagogue in West Los Angeles which probably does not exist anymore. In honor of the date, I usually chant the haftarah (Prophetic passage.). This coming Shabbat it is a particular honor because my mom’s yahrzeit falls on that date.
We only lived in that neighborhood for about a year after my bar mitzvah. Then my family moved to Tarzana in the San Fernando Valley, closer to other family members. But that little synagogue in West Los Angeles made a difference. On a regular basis on Saturday, they would call me and my dad saying they were short of a minyan (the ten men needed to conduct a service.) My dad and I would go, or if he was working, I road my bike there. I know that traditional Judaism forbids the use of a phone on Shabbat, but to this synagogue, getting a minyan was more important than not using the phone. (By the way, it was not a cellphone but an old-fashioned rotary phone in our kitchen.) I cannot say that being called for a minyan made me decide to become a rabbi, but it was certainly an influence.
The central theme of the beginning of the portion is that actions have consequences. The word ekev literally means “heel,” but think of it like the English phrase, “on the heel of something, something else happens.” Moses tells the people that if they follow God’s commandments, they will flourish when they come into the land. Today we may use phrases like “play it forward,” “actions have consequences,” or “what goes around comes around” to teach this idea that what we do can affect what happens in the future.
At my bar mitzvah, several family members, particularly my mom’s cousin Ralph, the most religious family member, said I should become a rabbi. I laughed at the idea. At that time I was far more interested in making model boats and playing with a tape recorder. It was several years later, while studying in Israel, that the idea came to me of becoming a rabbi. I was studying mathematics, and even began graduate work in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, one of my favorite places on earth. While at Berkeley, I taught Hebrew school and discovered that I liked teaching Judaism more than learning mathematics.
Much to my parents’ dismay, particularly my mom, I dropped out of graduate school and began Rabbinical school. (You can read how my mom came to accept my rabbinic career in a story I had published in Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul.) When I started, my background was so weak that I needed an entire preparatory year studying Hebrew, Bible, and Talmud. But after studying in Los Angeles, New York, and Jerusalem, I was ordained as a rabbi. So began a successful career that is continuing after more than forty years.
I think about the influences that set me on this career path. There were many – studying in Israel, lectures I heard, books I read, long discussions with rabbis I respected, even a love of Israeli folk dancing. But perhaps it was my bar mitzvah and being called to make a minyan on Shabbat morning that also set events in motion. During my rabbinic career, someone will occasionally see me and mention what a difference I made in their life. They will then remind me of something I said at their bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. Often, I do not remember the event. But they make me realize that what we do makes a difference. Actions have consequences, and positive actions have positive consequences. Perhaps that is the lesson I learned from my bar mitzvah sixty years ago.