Today is a paradoxical moment and Jewish teaching is full of paradoxes. On the one hand, it is Shabbat and the congregation has gathered, as it does each week, for the morning service. On the other hand, today is an exceptional occasion: the Bar Mitzvah of Sam. Jewish life: and the on-going rites and cycles practiced and experienced by the community; the individual Jew: and his or her unique life and journey.

Whenever I meet non-Jews, in particular, when giving talks at interfaith gatherings, someone will always comment to me about how community centred and family orientated Jewish people are. And it’s true: from Sinai until now, being Jewish has been about sharing a collective experience, being part of a Jewish family and community, and participating in the rites and rhythms of Jewish life.

But it’s actually much more complicated than this. In the past 200 years, the combined impact of enlightenment, emancipation, modernity, and scientific-technological development culminating in the complex mix of shattering and soaring events that defined the 20th century, has devastated, diversified and transformed Jewish existence.

However, paradox and complexity is not simply a contemporary phenomenon. A few moments ago, Sam led beautifully the first three parts of the Shabbat morning service. Taking us through the introductory passages of blessing and praise, the Bar’chu, call to prayer and the Sh’ma and its blessings, he then led us in the Amidah, the ‘Standing’ prayer. The heart of Jewish worship and referred to, originally, by the first rabbinic sages, who structured the liturgy, as Ha-T’fillah, ‘The Prayer’, the Amidah expresses, both, the prayer of the Jewish people and the prayer of the individual. In fact, in traditional congregations, it is recited twice – first, privately and second, communally, for this reason. And so it opens: Adonai s’fatai tiftach u’fi ya-gid t’hillatecha – ‘Eternal One, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise’; and closes with meditations in the first person, which end: Yihyu l’ratzon imrey-fi, v’hegyon libbi l’fanecha, Adonai, tzuri v’go’ali – ‘May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you, Eternal One, my rock and my Redeemer.’

In creating the structure of the Jewish liturgy, the first rabbis linked each daily service to the times when the priests had presented the sacred offerings in the Temple. But that’s not all: they also identified each service with each of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as individuals, who prayed to God.[1] In this way, the sages asserted the presence of the individual within the community.  And they went further: inspired by Hannah’s prayer, recorded in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 1, and the fervent way in which she murmured her petition to God, in her desperation to conceive a child, the early rabbis made Hannah the model of the praying Jew.[2] And so, traditional Jews pray The Prayer, like Hannah to this day – in silence, but with their lips moving.

The Prayer: of the community and of the individual – and seeing Sam, standing before us today, has surely brought that message home. But today, the presence of Sam leading the congregation in prayer is not the only dramatisation of this paradox of Jewish existence in our midst today. Interestingly, this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mass’ey, brings the paradox into sharp focus. While Mattot begins with the theme of individuals, individual men and women, taking upon themselves special vows to the Eternal One (Num. Ch. 30), Mass’ey opens with a summary of ‘the journeys of the Israelites’ – mass’ey v’ney Yisrael – in the wilderness (Ch. 33).

The individual and the community: So what is the connection between the two? As Sam, has put it himself, becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah ‘means’– and I quote: ‘taking the steps to responsibility and adulthood, and taking responsibility for the commandments.’ This suggests that becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah is the way in which the community exerts control over the individual and inducts him or her into the regime of Jewish observance. But does this approach match our experience of living as Jews in a modern context in which individuals make personal choices? In a sense, Sam becoming Bar Mitzvah today – in this moment and also in this epoch – is more akin to the individual being self-motivated to undertake special vows as recorded in parashat Mattot, than it is to the traditional rabbinic sense of the individual taking on, like a beast of burden, ol ha-mitzvot, ‘the yoke of the commandments’.

Sam: I think I’m right in saying that the pressure to follow in the footsteps of Leah and Miriam before you, apart, you have made your own decision to become Bar Mitzvah and so take responsibility for your own Jewish life. For you, despite the formal definition, becoming Bar Mitzvah is about becoming empowered as an individual to begin your own journey as a Jew, on your own terms. Which brings me to the second part of today’s double portion, Mass’ey: We read at Numbers chapter 33, verse 1:

Elleh mass’ey v’ney Yisrael, asher yatz’u mei’eretz mitzrayim,l’tzivotam; b’yad-Moshe v’Aharon.

These are the journeys of the Israelites who went out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

The Israelites did not journey from Egypt to Canaan, by the shortest route (Exodus 13:17). On the contrary, they went on many meandering journeys from the time they left Egypt until they finally crossed the Jordan into Canaan forty years later. There are several reasons for this. One of the reasons, much highlighted in B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, which we conclude today, is because rather than simply being a monolithic mass, moving forward in one body – or as the verse I’ve quoted puts it, ‘troop by troop’, in organised regiments – they were a motley crew of individuals. The Torah refers to erev rav, ‘a mixed multitude’ that took the opportunity to flee Egypt with the Israelites (Exodus 12:38). However, it wasn’t just the multitude of others who were ‘mixed’: a cacophony of voices railed and murmured and spoke out during the wilderness years. Over the past few weeks, as we’ve read through B’midbar, we have come across some of these individuals: Miriam, who challenged Moses’ special relationship with God (Numbers 12); ten of the leaders of the twelve tribes, who argued against entering the land beyond the Jordan, and the minority of two, Joshua and Caleb, who argued the opposite case (Num. 13ff.); Korach, Datan, Aviram and On, who challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Num. 16ff.); Pin’chas, Aaron’s grandson, who killed in a fit of religious zealotry (Num. 25ff.); Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirtzah, the daughters of Tz’lophchad, who challenged the system of patrilineal inheritance, when their father died without a son (Num.27:1-11 & 36:1-10).

Individuals: with their own perspectives, interests and agenda. Indeed, The Jewish story begins with the bold actions of individuals – the patriarchs and matriarchs – as recounted in B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, and it continues, not only through the pages of the Torah, but down the generations, as a winding tale in which the individual characters take their own steps, go on their own journeys and leave their individual marks on Jewish life in myriad ways.

Today we are celebrating one of those individuals: Sam – and as we celebrate Sam, we can also understand what being on a journey is all about. Sam: you are aware of how much you have changed during the past year as you prepared for becoming Bar Mitzvah. As you put yourself: ‘I have matured significantly ….. I have become slightly better at making decisions, and I have had to make a few recently.’

Yes, Sam, and making your own decisions is what the journey towards maturity is all about. That journey is challenging, but as far as I can see from what you’ve said about your Bar Mitzvah preparations it is also very enjoyable. Let me quote you again: ‘I have enjoyed learning about the Hebrew language, and learning about the roots of the words, and how it is structured, as well as learning about the history and studying how religion evolves over time. I have really enjoyed having Andy as my tutor, because he has taught me a wide range of things, he looks at Judaism from lots of different angles, and we have covered other things as well, such as language, philosophy and even some meditation.’

Sam: the way in which you have prepared to become Bar Mitzvah has clarified to you that it is not simply a goal you have to achieve. New vistas have opened up for you over the past year suggesting new possibilities for your future as an individual. As you have put it yourself: ‘Being Jewish means being part of a community’ but it’s also part of me, it is part of who I am, and a big part of my life.’ And who you are, is very evident in how you express yourself through music. Let me quote you again: ‘The thing I enjoy doing the most is playing the guitar, as I have been playing for nearly eight years, and I love playing music and entertaining others.’ And for you, playing the guitar is not just a leisure pursuit. That’s why, as you put it, ‘My favourite school subject is probably music, as I can do what I enjoy most, and play the guitar, as well as exploring a wider range of music than I might in my guitar lessons.’  But, also, you – and again, I quote: ‘find science really interesting, as it explains the world in a logical way.’ So it’s not surprising that your future ambitions go in both directions: ‘I would like to either work as a musician, to entertain and to have fun, or as a doctor …. I would like to help people.’

Sam: you are an individual with a very strong sense of yourself and with strong attachments to your family and friends. At the same time, the community dimension of your life is important to you. In your own words: ‘The synagogue is a place where I’m always welcome. As well as being a place of worship, it is a place where there are people who I care about and a warm community.’  And for you, community also extends beyond the congregation. You would like to make a difference to others in the wider world. As you have put it: ‘I would like to work for a charity, or raise money for charity, to help the people who need it most. There are too many people living in poverty, and I would like to help in some way to bring that number down.’

Sam: you are demonstrating to us today that one of the most precious gifts of Jewish life is that individuals choose to participate and take responsibility for making their own unique contribution. Everyone who knows you is very proud of you. May the achievement of this moment be a source of inspiration for you as you continue your journey. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalomv Ve’rei’ut

6th July 2013 – 28th Tammuz 5773

[1] The Mishnah records that there are three daily services, each connected to a particular time of day (Mishnah B’rachot 4:1). In the commentary on the Mishnah in the Talmud (B’rachot 26b), Rabbi Yosei bar Rabbi Hanina says that the weekday prayers were instituted by the patriarchs. Abraham is associated with Shacharit, the morning service: “Abraham arose early in the morning” (Genesis 22:3), Isaac is linked with Minchah, the afternoon service: “Isaac went out meditating in the field toward evening” (Gen. 24:63) and Jacob is connected with Ma’ariv, the evening service: “He came to that place and stopped there for the night”(Gen. 28:11). Opposing this argument, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says that the three daily prayer services were instituted in accordance with the daily sacrifices of the Temple period.

[2] See B’rachot 31a-b for the laws derived from Hannah’s prayer and, specifically, for those associated with Ha-T’fillah. Note that the Hebrew of the text in 1 Samuel, chapter 1, uses the same Hebrew root, Pey Lamed Lamed: Va-titpalleil – ‘and she prayed’ (verse 10).