I had the unique honor and pleasure this week of performing two bar mitzvah ceremonies in Israel; one for my nephew and one for his good friend who shares his birthday.
These events are particularly significant to me because, aside from sharing a wonderful moment with relatives, I had the opportunity to introduce two relatively secular Israeli Jewish families and their friends to the possibility of religious and spiritual connectedness outside the realm of the ultra-Orthodox authorities. Many Israelis today are entirely non-observant and disengaged from a religious life as a result of decades of all-or-nothing Judaism. They have been taught that one is either religious (i.e.. Orthodox) or nothing; leaving little in between for those who want to live secular lifestyles, but also want to practice Judaism on their own terms or grow in observance at their own pace.
This past Monday and Thursday, Torah-reading mornings, I presided over men and women, and boys and girls, many of whom stood together for the first time in the shadow of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. They were united as a family and a community in faith, in prayer, and in learning along with the overwhelming emotion that accompanied the shared revelation.
This week, Jews around the world study the words of the Torah portion Tzav, which details the laws of the burnt offering. The act of sacrifice in the Hebrew biblical tradition is called Korban, from the word meaning to “draw near.” Unique to the olah offering is the fact that the one bringing the olah expects nothing in return. It is an unconditional sacrifice. The object offered is entirely burnt as a gift to God. The two young Israeli celebrants read these words of Torah and tried to put them into the context of their own lives, giving special attention to the great spiritual potential that filled the moment of their “drawing near” in the holiest of places and at the most auspicious of times.
We all reach a moment in our lives when we examine our selves and ask “what do I have to offer”? What do I bring to the table that is the altar of sacrifice to the greater good and a higher purpose? As a young boy or girl takes his or her place at the Torah for the first time, he or she declares, “I am an adult,” and suddenly is obligated to community and to service. The days of concern for “myself” — “myself” alone — are over.
This newly assumed state of responsibility demands a greater self awareness and deeper self questioning. Others are now counting on me. Am I ready to serve the team above myself? Am I prepared to advance another, even ahead of myself, if it means success for my family, my team, my class, my community? Am I wise enough to recognize that my ability to raise up another is a God-given, uniquely human, under-utilized, but ultimately most valued trait?
In ancient times, when our farm animals were our most valuable assets, sacrificing a bull to God was a public declaration of one’s need for reconciliation with the Divine or the community. The act reflected the understanding that no single personal asset could match the value of a clear conscience, a neighborly sensitivity, a grateful heart.
We need not be thirteen again to experience these potentially transformative moments; we need not place ourselves anywhere other than where we are right now. Every moment and every place presents an opportunity to draw nearer to a cause or to a vision that is bigger than ourselves. Each one of us has something unique to bring to the altar of unconditional self-sacrifice. We offer love, friendship, support, counsel, time, and resources. We are at our very best when we place ourselves in the service of something other than our selves.
Only when we recognize that we need these moments of transcendence in our lives, and that they allow us to offer our finest selves, will we create institutions and communities that are reflective of these values.
Through Jewish Eyes welcomes back guest author and rabbi, Craig Scheff. For more information on Rabbi Scheff, see his author profile on this site’s home page or click here.