Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
JOSH PYZER – Toldot Barmitzvah
3 December 2005
Congratulations on the truly superb you layened your entire sidrah, maftir and haftarah this morning. You sped through it melodiously and as confidently as a veteran.
Your family has not forgotten what happened to me at Zack’s Barmitzvah, when I went to Cambridge to give a lecture on the Thursday, and was marooned there by thick snow and ice, making every road out of the city, including the motorways, impassable. The result was that I couldn’t get back to Stanmore for the Shabbat and the celebration. I wondered why a cordon was thrown around my house last Thursday morning. Your dad quipped that he expects two sermons this morning in compensation. Now, my policy has always been to take very seriously everything my members say. So…
My dear Zack... What’s that? You’ll take a rain check instead? OK
Josh, Your parents, and grandparents, have a deep pride in their Judaism and its ethical and moral values. Shul and community have always been important in the life of your family. I have known both the Pyzer and Conway families long enough – 25 years to be precise – in Kenton and Stanmore – to know of their sincerity and commitment. In fact, your parents’ wedding was the last one I officiated at before I left Kenton, and, coincidentally, yours is one of the last Barmitzvah addresses I shall be giving in Stanmore.
Your dear mum, Nicki has played her part on various rotas, including the Sunday morning Cheder Library rota, the admin and midweek tea rotas and also the Beaver rotas, and your dad, Ian, has been for years involved with the Children’s and Intermediate Services rotas. His knowledge of Jewish tradition has enabled him to teach you your Barmitzvah layening, and I know that you have both thoroughly enjoyed that spiritually enriching and bonding experience.
'you shall teach them [the words of the Torah] diligently to your children, and speak of them.’ If you 'teach them,' then you have to 'speak of them!' Answer: the latter phrase means that, if your children learn diligently Torah from you, then you will be enabled 'to speak of them,' i.e. of your children, with pride and fulfilment.
Your dear Grandma, Jean, was a dynamic nursery head teacher in Kenton. She was adored by the children and feared by the parents! She also continues to this day to give of her time and energies to our SSCC and other causes.
You have been a regular attender and loyal supporter of all our younger services, and you were honoured as Chatan Torah in the Children’s Service. You are a veteran Anim Zemirot leader, having done it seven times in the main shul and six in the Youth Shul which you will be joining, with a large group of your peers, in January.
You enjoy your studies at JFS, and have a good mathematical brain. Your special gifts for English and maths have placed you in a gifted and talented class, and, not surprisingly, you are good at Su Doku and other logic puzzles. I am sure that your family has great hopes and expectations from you in the future. And the subject of expectations leads me to a message from your Barmitzvah sidrah:
This sidrah presents a very strange situation: Abraham had, on several occasions, pleaded with God to grant him and Sarah a child, both for their marital fulfilment as well as for their dream of passing on their spiritual values and the truth of monotheism (belief in just one God) to generations of their offspring, and, through them, to the wider world. The dream is fulfilled, very late in their lives; but the personality of the child they have, Isaac, is hardly suited to the role of religious flag waver. Isaac is a man of very few words. He is an introvert, brooding, shadowy figure who cannot show his emotions or make peace between his contending children. He is presented as passive: A wife is found for him by his father’s servant. He is taken to the Akedah, the binding, by his father. The wells that he digs are filled in with earth by the Philistines. He is hoodwinked by Jacob in disguise, and he has to rely on his son, Esau, to bring him food and ensure that he doesn’t starve. The Torah has very little to say about him, other than to chronicle his problems. Isaac has well been described as the son of a great father, and father of a great son.
And yet he is given the most coveted title of being one of our three Avot, the founding fathers of our nation! And that, Joshua, is because not everyone can be great spiritual pioneer like Abraham, and not everyone can found a dynasty of 12 tribes and give his name, Israel, to an eternal people, like Jacob. Not everyone is a mover and shaker, someone who can promote great ideas and stir the hearts of men. Not everyone can move things forward and be a vigorous, creative and courageous spiritual giant. Abraham was certainly that. He taught everyone he met about God. He implanted the idea of monotheism into the ancient Near-East. And Jacob followed suit. He reared and inspired a family that certainly created a stir among the surrounding tribes and nations. A family that demonstrated moral courage by waging war against those who kidnapped their sister Dinah, or, as in the case of Joseph, by rising to prominence in Egypt through personal qualities admired even by Pharaoh who described him as ish asher ruach Elokim bo, “a man endowed with the Spirit of God.” All that was clearly engendered and nurtured by their father, Jacob.
But Isaac is also accorded the status of being one of our three founding fathers, although he was a pale reflection of his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob. Because although he was not a charismatic, engaging, personality, not a leader, not even – it may be argued - a particularly good parent, yet he did something which, at that particular period, when belief in One God was in its infancy, made a vital contribution to that great cause. What did he do? He was a quiet, but faithful transmitter of the traditions of his father to his offspring. He preserved those traditions for posterity.
Without Isaac, Abraham’s pioneering work would have been wasted and forgotten, and Jacob would never have inherited the core values of his grandfather. Isaac enabled his son, Jacob, to receive the traditions of Abraham, and to successfully transmit them to his large family. And so, Isaac also takes much of the credit for the survival and development of that tradition in Egypt throughout the next few centuries. That in turn, helped to secure and cement a sense of religious identity and kinship among the rapidly growing Israelite nation.
This is the message of your sidrah, Joshua, a message so important for a Barmitzvah boy to appreciate: it is that without the messenger there is no message. Today you become a responsible member of the Jewish people. There are many expectations that you are called upon to fulfil as you enter your teenage years and beyond. Your parents and grandparents have set themselves high standards, and they will undoubtedly be expecting you to follow loyally in their way and to build on their achievements. You are a very bright boy academically so they will have some high expectations in that direction also.
As far as Judaism is concerned, it also has its high expectations. So the message is, in the first instance, to take Abraham and Jacob as your inspiration and your challenge. Study your tradition – their tradition. Take it seriously. Become a scholar. Inspire others. But if you find that a little too demanding, then at least make the Isaac of your Barmitzvah sidrah your role model, and ensure that you maintain the standards, values, loyalty and commitment of your family, and that you accept the sacred responsibility of handing it on intact, when you grow up, marry and have a family of your own. If you do just that, even without developing it further, then you will have made your contribution, and done something valuable. If, on the other hand, your heart does inspire you to build on their foundation, and to go on to a yeshivah for a while after you leave school and to become a truly learned Jew, then you really will be taking us forward and helping to strengthen us spiritually. Then you will certainly bring great credit and pride to your dear parents, Nicky and Ian, to grandma Jean and Joyce and Papa Albert, to all your family, to your community and to your people.