Good Shabbos and Mazel Tov. It is a great pleasure to join with you today for Joseph’s Bar Mitzvah. Having worked together with Joseph to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah I have been particularly impressed with his mature approach to his studies and his commitment to Judaism. I think it is obvious from Joseph’s delivery today that he is a young man who strives for and attains excellence in whatever he undertakes.
Joseph, your Bar Mitzvah takes place during the period of Sfire, which spans 49 days beginning at the conclusion of Pesach through the start of the Shavuot holiday. The sages teach us as we count each day, we move closer to G-d. The closer we get the stronger the potential connection.
I would like to digress for a moment and just welcome my dear mother—Rebbetzen Gittel Tova Weisblum. She just arrived from Israel last Sunday for a two-week visit. I guess just like any Jewish mother, she needed to make sure her son was fine in his new position, new home.
But really, I would like to honor my mother—she is one person who has demonstrated this close connection with G-d and has demonstrated it throughout her life. She chose to fly into New York, instead of Baltimore to visit a handicapped dear friend. This friend has been severely disabled for over thirty years; she has no legs below her knees. And yet, this woman is deeply religious, upbeat, married, raised beautiful, Torah-observant children and grandchildren. And her entire family personally cares for her physical needs 24/7 with the utmost devotion.
I tell you this because this is the kind of person my mother is, and her life has taught me that she believes very strongly in maintaining friendships and doing the mitzvah of raising people’s spirits. Today it is Joseph who is thanking his parents, I also want to thank my parents—it doesn’t stop at your Bar Mitzvah, it’s very important to continue to say thank you and to honor your parents.
I just wanted to briefly mention that my mother is looking forward to meeting with as many of you as possible. She is open to hearing anyone’s suggestions for good sightseeing attractions. To her America is a great and exciting country and the ties between Israel and America are very important and cherished. She would like you to know that if anyone comes to Israel, there is an open invitation to visit, she would be willing to receive anyone into her home and assist in any way needed. Hopefully this is the first of many visits.
Getting back to this journey to gain a closer connection with G-d. It is like having "more" and "more" of G-d’s undivided attention. Thus, we are encouraged to take the opportunity to count the time, grow and deepen as humans through an awareness of our spiritual roots. This spiritual journey is like climbing a mountain. Although our forefather Moses had a literal mountain hike on his journey to meet G-d, ours is more figurative.
In the 18th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Hassidic master who lived in Russia, stated "G-d is found wherever you let him in." Each one of us has a mountain, an obstruction or challenge, just like Moses did. The mountain is where we are supposed to be figuratively ascending in our spirituality and "letting God in." Even though we know G-d is everywhere, we are all moving up our own mountain. Does this awareness change how strongly our attachment is to G-d and does it affect our destiny and purpose?
An acquaintance was watching Accent on Health, a CNN program recently. The program featured the story of Albert Hanna, a 71-year old former insurance manager who at age of 50 decided that he wanted to become a mountain climber in addition to his job. He trained during all of his free time and vacation and started following his dream. Since then, he has gone on 20 expeditions, including the giant Mt. Everest and many they challenging mountains. But he was determined that he should follow his dream or his life wouldn’t be complete.
Joseph, you have to be very thankful that you come from a wonderful Jewish background. Anyone who has celebrated his Bar Mitzvah will easily recall the trepidation that he felt throughout the preparation for this special day. Many of us remember those first feelings of nervousness starting months before the celebration. How will I ever pronounce the prayers? Will I make a big mistake and embarrass my family and myself forever? Will my voice crack? What happens after the "big day"? What changes will this day bring about in my life?
It is precisely at a time like this, that a Bar Mitzvah boy should react like a Jewish soldier by thinking not only of himself, but also of the Jewish People as a whole. Each man is an important link in a long chain that represents our People. A boy might say to himself, "big deal, I’m just one little link; so what if I go my own way?" It is well known, however, that the strength of a chain depends on every link that each individual part provides and that even one missing link would weaken the chain.
Now, should we think about others or always just mind our own business and do what we are supposed to do? This timeless question is nicely illustrated in an old tale. A group of Jews were once sailing out to sea. After a few hours, one man started drilling a hole under his seat. The other people on the boat started to scream, "Stop!! What are you doing?" "Mind your own business, this is my spot," said the man drilling the hole. "Are you nuts? You’re going to sink this boat and we’ll all drown because of what you are doing."
This little scenario illustrates the point—is it really possible for us to "do our own thing without affecting the rest of humanity?" Is it possible for the actions of one person to affect the lives of others? There is much food for thought here.
You know, there are many mystical teachings that tell us how all of G-d’s creatures occupy a space in the universe, a place in the world. We just celebrated on Tuesday the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, also known as Lag B’ Omer, which is the Yahserit of Kabbalistic master, Rabbi Shimon bar Yachai, the author of the Zohar, --a Jewish mystical teaching. He espoused the principle that we are supposed to grow where we are planted, meaning wherever God puts us on earth. Whether that is a chair in a classroom or keeping a home in a particular block in a certain city or at a desk in a particular job—you are supposed to develop and make the most of the situation and blossom where you are planted.
The story with the man on the boat--he had his special spot, but what was he doing? There is a saying in Yiddish—"kick a zeck in shissel," literally this means to look in your place, which means you should mind your own business. The man drilling the hole was minding his own business, but what about the other people—were they doing what they were supposed to be doing?
Like King Solomon, we pray that G-d would grant us a heart of wisdom so we should have the discernment to know when to get involved in someone else’s business. But to get involved for the sake of justice, especially in today’s world is scary. It is taking a risk, a step of faith. A friend who is a nurse and worked in the Alzheimer’s field at a Harvard Geriatric Teaching and Research Center many years ago described such a situation. The Alzheimer’s cause received much funding from the National Institute of Health, which provided many grants for research and people to work in the field to serve the patients. But about twenty years ago, when AIDS arrived on the scene and became the new "spotlight disease," the funding was shifted to AIDS research. This person became concerned. Although she thought that it wasn’t her business what people did in their bedrooms, when it became a national concern and took money away from other causes that would help other people, it did become her concern. People’s choices do become our business and society’s business when it affects the whole picture.
Joseph, your ancestors made it their business to plant the seeds for your success today by their direct involvement in establishing Jewish Centers. They paved the way so you could follow in their footsteps on your path to G-d. I am certain that G-d sees and knows your heart well and sees a young man filled with devotion and love for the Torah. You have worked long and hard for this day and have rehearsed probably more times than you can count. And you succeeded. When the moment of truth came, you spoke your lines with confidence and determination. You made us very proud of you and we all shared in the beautiful experience.
As you know, Joseph, every program has credits afterwards thanking all the "behind the scenes" people who made the show a success. This is in line with the teaching in Judaism of "hakarat hatov," acknowledging the good that others have done. A tremendous amount of gratitude goes to your dear parents who gave their hearts and souls to make sure that you had a strong and consistent Jewish education both inside and outside the home. You were also privileged to have wonderful teachers, who I know were extremely fond of you and marveled at your achievements. All this is your nature; it is what has helped shape your character and bring you to this significant day in your life.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our congregants a happy and healthy Shavout and I hope that we can all be celebrating this special holiday together.
On behalf of the congregation and myself I extend our warmest congratulations. I wish at this time to bless Joseph, his family and the entire congregation with good health, happiness and nachas. May we continue to share simchas. Mazel Tov. G-d bless.
Joseph, I would like to close with this song,
<<SONG—Roger’s & Hammerstein’s Musical—Sound of Music—as the lyric state,