Address to Barmitzvah Blake Buckman
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 2nd July 2005
My dear Blake,
Congratulations to you, and to your dear parents, Lynn and Steven, on the occasion of your Barmitzvah, and on the excellent way you read your Maftir and Haftarah today.
You have been through all our services and you take an active part in all our youth programmes and activities. You have had the benefit of an exclusively Jewish education, at Rosh Pinah, Sinai and now at JFS. And it is clearly having a most beneficial effect. Rabbi Shaw mad a point of telling me how seriously you take tefillah in the Youth Service. You don’t chatter, but daven with great concentration, which is most commendable. I did have just a tincture of doubt, however, as to what you were praying for, when your disclosed to me that you were into playing computer poker! Well, I suppose it still displays a measure of faith.
You are, indeed, quite an entrepreneur. I understand that you have your own website for message boards and web cams, and that people pay to advertise with you. So, all in all, and with your many sporting activities, you have a very full life.
Your barmitzvah sidrah, Korach, falls midway between the sidrot of the book of Bemidbar. If I was asked to describe the entire book of Bemidbar in one word, I would describe it as the book of ‘protest.’ For seven out of the ten sidrot contain accounts of dissatisfaction, complaint or protest.
In the Sidra Naso, we have a situation where a man protests publicly – and possibly unjustly - about his wife’s moral conduct. In Behaalotkha, the Israelites protest against the lack of variety in their diet of heavenly manna, and lust after meat. In shelach Lekha, they weep and protest against God, preferring to believe the false report of the spies than the promise of God to bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey. In today’s sidrah, we have the story of Korach’s large-scale rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and his protest that they had both made a pretence of extra piety in order to seize the leadership of Israel. In the sidrah Chukkat, the Israelites protest at the temporary lack of water, and claim that God has brought them to die in the desert. In the sidrah Pinchas we have another protest, though this time a justifiable one, by the daughters of Tzelafchad, who protest against the unfairness of the laws of inheritance which, until that time, only permitted land to be passed on to male heirs. In the Sidrah Mattot, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half Menasseh protest at having to take up an inheritance in the Promised land proper, which, they allege, would not be large enough for their vast flocks.
A whole book of the Torah devoted to protest. It says a lot for our people’s relationship with God, for the closeness that they felt to Him, that that they felt able to muster the courage to protest when they felt that He was being less than fair in His treatment of His people.
Blake, our tradition of protest goes back to the very beginning of our history when our father Abraham protested vigorously when he heard that God was going to destroy Sodom and Gemmorah. “Shall the judge of the whole earth not execute justice?” He demanded. Maybe there are righteous people in the cities who will suffer the fate of the wicked. And that is why we trace our ancestry back to Abraham and not to Noach, another righteous man, but a man who did not protest when told that God was going to destroy the entire earth. Abraham, on the other hand, spoke out fearlessly against God even when it was the inhabitants of a mere two small towns that were to be destroyed.
And our greatest leader, Moses, was also a great protester. When Pharaoh intensified the hardship of Israel, Moses cried out, “Why have you dealt so badly with this people? Why have you sent me?
Blake, the most significant aspect of Abraham’s and Moses’ protest was that it was not at God’s harsh treatment of them – and they both did, indeed, in their lives, suffer many agonies about which they could justifiably have challenged God . Their protests were on behalf of their fellow man, on behalf of innocent victims, of the less fortunate. That is the Jewish way. That is what the Torah you are accepting today is all about.
So the message of your sidrah, Blake, and of the others we have referred to in this book of Bemidbar, the book of protest, is two-fold. First, in general, don’t be a professional protester – and I have met quite a few of those in the communities I have served. Don’t look for faults to denounce, criticisms to publicise, protests to organise. Look for ways in which you can contribute towards improving situations, smoothing away the misunderstandings, restoring peace and harmony. And this applies to all problems: whether in one’s domestic and family life, in one’s professional or business life, in communal life, and even beyond, in society at large.
And secondly, do be a protester when you see an injustice being perpetrated, when you see the weak being down-trodden, the poor going hungry, the stranger being exploited, your own people’s cause being maliciously misrepresented, their religious rights being compromised, their right to a secure land of their own being violently undermined and denied. That is the challenge of your Barmitzvah sidrah.
Being an adult Jew in today’s largely corrupt and violent world, a world devoid of morality, a world of ingrained prejudice, and distortion of values, is far from easy. It involves having to defend the name of your people, and to secure its survival. It involves playing your part to ensure that Judaism’s values are promoted, the values of morality, integrity, love of fellow man, and, please God, a peaceful future for it. May you live up to those challenges and become a source of great pride to your dear parents, grandparents, Mia and James and all your family, your community and your people. Amen.