Barmitzvah of Jordan Engel-Stevens
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 1st October 2005
My dear Jordan,
Congratulations to you, your mum, your dad, and all your family on your having attained your Barmitzvah, and especially on the excellent way you read your maftir and haftarah. I know that your joyful day has been transformed for your family into one of mixed emotions due to the passing of your great grandma, Saidie Isaacs, this week. Although she lived to the ripe age of 97, it is still a great loss, and we wish you and all your family ‘long life’ and comfort. We hope that your Barmitzvah will help to lift all your spirits, and that her memory will be a blessing to you all.
You and your family are comparative newcomers to Stanmore, having moved here some 18 months ago from Dunstan Road. I hope you really feel part of our community by now, and that you will continue to attend shul every Shabbat, join the Youth Service, and participate in, and enjoy, the various youth programmes and activities, as well as the teenage social and educational life of our community.
You are quite a sportsman. But when you told me about one of your other interests I have to admit to having been quite stuck for a comment – which is not usual for a rabbi, I have to tell you. I refer to your enjoyment of playing poker on-line! The only thought that came to my mind was that on-line must be better than playing it in a smoke-filled backroom with a double whisky and an ounce of crack by one’s side! Ah well, Jordan, full marks for honesty. You gave it to me straight... without so much as a flush... which suits me... so I felt able to mention it today in the presence of a full house!
But something you can be far more proud about is your chess prowess. You’ve been playing since you were 4 or 5, and, in a national competition, you succeeded in reaching the group of the top 1000 players in the entire country, which is no mean feat.
Jordan, you are being Barmitzvah at the most important and sacred time of the year, the run up to Rosh Hashanah, when we Jews are urged to take stock of our lives, and to make good any of our shortcomings. If, for any reason, our sense of Jewish identity, our religious practice or our synagogue attendance has been weak, now is the time to think about it, and to resolve to improve and to strengthen our religious ties.
This is also the purpose of the Barmitzvah. It is a time for some serious soul-searching and hard thinking. A time to come to terms with the fact that, as a Jew, you are not expected to live a life that is independent of the community. And this is why Judaism requires 10 males over the age of Bar Mitzvah in order to hold a synagogue service. We do not pray as individuals. We pray as part of a community. We pray for the peace and welfare of the entire community, not just our own.
And your Barmitzvah sidrah conveys this message most forcefully in its opening sentences. This sidrah actually describes the Barmitzvah of the entire Israelite nation. At Sinai they were given the Torah, but, ironically, most of it was not relevant to the generation that received it. This is because they were not destined to enter the Promised Land. So the vast majority of Torah laws were not applicable to them: laws relating to the monarchy, agriculture, tithes, the Temple, the annual ceremony of bringing the first fruits, laws relating to Israelite and foreign slaves, the laws of the 7th and 50th years (Shemittah and Yoveil), the institution of cities of refuge, legislation governing a city that went over to idolatry, laws relating to property rights and inheritance, and so on.
So Moses waited until the last year of his life before addressing the younger generation, destined to enter Israel under his successor Joshua. And he organises a great and awesome Barmitzvah ceremony, wherein the entire nation enters into a covenant with God, to accept his Torah and to be loyal to His will:
Attem nitzavim ha-yom kulkhem... You are all standing here this day before
The Lord Your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers,
All the people of Israel. Your little ones, your wives, and the stranger within
your gates... le’ovr’kha bivrit Hashem Elokekha... that you may enter into the
covenant with the Lord thy God.
A national Barmitzvah. And hence, every subsequent Barmitzvah, modelled on that great biblical covenant to observe the Torah, also takes place in the presence of the community, symbolic of the entire nation of Israel. Because your Barmitzvah is of the utmost importance to the entire Jewish nation. Every Jewish boy, or girl, has the potential to make a great contribution to our national cause. We all have different skills, strengths and creative ideas. We can all help protect the Jewish people, or enrich it culturally, educationally, artistically or spiritually. We all have a contribution to make, to the land and the people of Israel, and to our local Diaspora communities.
We do not live in our own ivory tower. We live among Jewish communities; and each and every one of us has a role to play, a mission to achieve, a contribution to make, a burden to shoulder, a blessing to dispense.
My prayer is that you will take this message of the opening words of your sidrah to heart – the message of community - and that you will place the welfare of your people and the observance of its Torah and way-of-life at the very forefront of your heart and at the top of your priorities, bringing great pride to your mum, your dad, grandparents and all your family. Amen.