Sermon delivered February 24, 2012 by Rabbi Barry H.D. Block
Do you guys know how much it costs to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah these days? Oh, wait, yes, many of you do know, all too well. I’m the one who had no idea. Yes, for twenty years, I have been privileged to officiate, week in and week out, as young men and women come to the bimah to take on the mantle of Jewish religious adulthood. I have given a great deal of thought to the spiritual significance of the occasion and to the ways that we can make the moment even more meaningful.
A confession: For the last twelve years, even as I’ve focused on each young person before me, I have also given thought to the days when Robert and Daniel will each become a Bar Mitzvah. About a month ago, though, the actual planning for Robert’s big day got underway. A friend was kind enough to tell me how much it’s going to cost. Oh, my. And then she said: “And that doesn’t include the clothes.” “Really?” I asked. “You spent that much on a Bar Mitzvah suit?” Bobby will be grateful that this Bar Mitzvah mom was referring to her own clothes for the big day.
But seriously . . . Each year, at the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Orientation, I counsel the parents: Each family celebrates in accordance with their own means. We regularly have Bar or Bat Mitzvah luncheons that run the gamut from grocery store deli trays to the city’s finest caterers, and they are all lovely and meaningful. I urge the parents not to take out a second mortgage or to run up unreasonable credit card debt, under perceived pressure to give a party as lavish as last week’s. Or next week’s.
I tell an anecdote about what does not happen at Temple Beth-El. A friend of mine, in another city, told me that he and his wife simply couldn’t afford to give the kind of Bat Mitzvah party expected in their community. This couple is not poor: Their alternative to the Bat Mitzvah party was to take their family of four on a week-long Caribbean cruise. And their daughter did become a Bat Mitzvah. In order to escape the rat race in their town, they held a private service so that they wouldn’t feel expected to invite as many people or entertain as lavishly. The festive dinner that followed, in a restaurant’s private room, certainly wasn’t lavish, but it also wasn’t overly modest, featuring 70 guests and a disc jockey. In San Antonio, such a party would have been perfectly normal. Here we know: Every family is different. Here we affirm: Every Bar or Bat Mitzvah is equal, even if there is variation from one party to the next.
About a month after each Bar or Bat Mitzvah, our Temple office sends a survey to the parents. We want to make sure that we are achieving our goals and that families have a good experience with the Temple. One lesson from those surveys stands out. We ask parents to agree or disagree with this statement: By the day of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we perceive that the service was more important to our child than the party or the gifts. Virtually all the parents agree or strongly agree with that sentiment, and let me emphasize that they have the opportunity to respond anonymously.
By the time the Bar or Bat Mitzvah day arrives, our young men and women have devoted so much effort to learning to read from the Torah and chant the Haftarah, to the prayers they will lead and to the words they will speak, that they scarcely have time to think about the party. More to the point, our young people frequently have to make sacrifices in order to prepare for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is korban, which comes from the root that means “come close.” When we sacrifice for something, it becomes particularly precious to us. Admittedly, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah preparation process at our Temple is consuming, some would say “onerous.” But the end result is worth it: Not only are our celebrants well prepared, they are also proud of the place they have taken in the chain of Jewish tradition.
And, by the way, a good party is appropriate. I particularly treasure our traditions at Temple Beth-El, especially the luncheons to which the entire congregation present is invited. I am grateful that most Bar and Bat Mitzvah families take us seriously when we urge them to invite the student’s entire Religious School class. Even if they don’t know everybody well when the lists are made, relationships form over the course of the year. The result is that each class is closely bonded by the time they reach Confirmation. The inclusive values of our tradition are not lost on our young people, who understand that community and kindness are paramount, and exclusion is frowned upon, under the dome of Temple Beth-El.
We have all heard the Jewish jokes about food. You know the one about our holidays: They’re all the same; “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.” I have been known to teach that the Torah commands Brit Milah on the eighth day, but does not command the presence of bagels and lox alongside the surgery. The truth, though, is that Jewish tradition encourages us to enjoy a seudat mitzvah, a festive meal to celebrate the performance of a mitzvah.
This week’s Torah portion offers guidance to shape our priorities as we plan a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or any sacred celebration.
God is speaking to Moses at Mount Sinai, shortly after the revelation of the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Torah. Now, God directs Moses to solicit gifts from the Israelites, the first-ever building campaign, to construct the Tabernacle, the portable Temple where the people will worship until they reach the Promised Land. Some may bring gold and others copper; some will bring scarlet thread and others acacia wood. Others will bring their skill and their artistry, while another group will be assigned to carry the Tabernacle and its sacred objects from one encampment to the next. The Torah does not suggest that everybody bring the same gifts. Indeed, each man and woman and child has distinct, individual blessings. Hebrew comes easily to some, so they read extra Torah verses or chant more lines of Haftarah. For another, analysis is a greater skill, and the D’var Torah reads like a rabbinical thesis. Some families are blessed to provide a magnificent meal and entertainment for hundreds, while others are privileged to share their own kind of celebration with a few close friends and the Temple community. The result in the Torah portion, God says: “Let them build me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. The result when we celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah: Every gift is treasured, as each is part of constructing a sacred moment for God to touch the community.
God gives specific instructions for the construction of the Ark. Unlike our Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was a box, open at the top. The people could not see the inside. Nevertheless, God commands: “It shall be overlaid in gold, inside and outside.” Each of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants is surrounded by external gold, as it were, in appropriate clothing for the day and with a fitting celebration. Just as important, though, is the gold on the inside, harder to see and not so expensive: The Torah that has entered the young person’s heart and soul; service to God and to our community. Let every Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrant – Adam and his peers, this year and every year, here at Temple Beth-El or wherever they may celebrate – let them all be good as gold, on the inside and out.