Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Vayyigash: Ben Goldberg’s Barmitzvah
7th January 2006

What a pleasure it is to have been invited back to Stanmore to address Ben, after such a lengthy absence of seven days. You know, in biblical Hebrew the word shavua, from the word sheva, meaning ‘seven,’ can mean either ‘seven days’ or ‘seven years,’ as when Laban told Jacob, malei shavua zot, ‘work for another seven years and I’ll give you Rachel as well.’ [Rabbi Cohen then provided a brief justification of his assertion that shavua in that context meant ‘seven years’ – a view not followed by the traditional commentaries.]

For people who don’t enjoy their work, a shavua, a period of seven days can drag along, feeling like seven years. On the other hand, for people like myself, who were fulfilled and challenged by their work for this community, each shavua, each seven-year period, felt like a mere shavua, a mere week.

There must be some among you, though who must be thinking, genug shaun, ‘He’s past the age of retirement; he’s no longer on the wave-length of the barmitzvah boy, he’s got a grandson older than Ben. Why is he prolonging the agony?’

Well, Gloria, my answer will constitute my sermon today, by way of a true anecdote related to a verse in today’s sidrah, just two verses before Shevii, when Ben took over and read so beautifully for us.

Now one of the most illustrious sages of the 18th century, was the Shaagat Aryeh, Reb Aryeh Leib Gunzberg. Just after he was appointed to become rabbi of Volodzin, he heard that some people had objected to the appointment on the grounds that he was already an elderly man. 65?! His first drasha was Shabbat Vayigash, this week’s sidrah. And this was his sermon:

After the aged Jacob had settled down in Egypt, he was granted an audience with Pharoah. The first question Pharoah asks him is ‘how old are you?’ A strange question. Even stranger is Jacob’s answer, ‘The years of my life are 130, they were few and troubled, but they haven’t yet reached anywhere near the years of my fathers’ (Gen. 46:9). ‘Why did Pharaoh want to know Jacob’s age?’ asked Reb Aryeh, ‘and why did Jacob answer with far more information than Pharaoh asked for?

His answer was that Pharaoh was strongly struck by the fact that the arrival of Jacob to Egypt coincided with the end of the seven years of famine, and he was convinced that the father of Joseph had played a major part in achieving what his son had prophesied. He was deeply concerned, however, when he looked at Jacob, that such an old man might not long survive to continue bringing such blessing to Egypt. Hence his question, ‘how old are you?’

Jacob answered, ‘Don’t worry. I’m not as old as I look. The years of my life are me’at, ‘few,’ compared with those of my fathers. We’re a family blessed with longevity, and the only reason I look so old is simply because the years of my life to date have been ra’im, ‘full of pain and adversity.’ So it is with me,’ said the Shaagat Aryeh, ‘I’m not as old as you think. My premature ageing is merely the result of the communal aggravation I have suffered, but I’ve got years more to contribute to this city.’

So, this is my justification, friends, for returning today, to address Ben, albeit that I am old and laden with years.

Ben, It is truly a pleasure to be addressing you today. I want you to know that I wouldn’t have made a come-back into the ring for anyone else. You should regard this as a tribute to your dear parents, Michelle and Jonathan, for whom I, this community and all their friends and associates, have the very highest regard. Just as they, and your dear grandparents, Barbara and Stanley, and all your family are so proud of you today, so you should be very proud of them. It would be impossible to list all the charitable and other worthy causes that your parents support and the good works that they do, in both the private and public mode. When our community decided to set up the Stanmore Synagogue Communal Care, which helps people in our community in all sorts of ways, your mum was on the organising, or steering, committee, as it is called. She worked devotedly to help set it up into the splendid ands indispensable organisation that it is today. Norwood is another organisation that is very close to both your parents’ hearts, and for which they work so very hard at fundraising, and dad was particularly involved for several years in BINOH, the educational side of the organisation. In a nutshell, they are people with a heart, who can be relied upon to help others, both financially and practically. I know that they are wonderful parents to you, and to Emily, Nicholas and Alice, and that you are a warm and united family. In this context may I also wish a heartfelt mazal tov to your dear grandparents, Barbara and Stanley, who last summer celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and who, unlike father Jacob, wear their years extremely lightly.

And now to you, Ben. Your parents have given your Jewish identity a great boost by sending you to a superb school, Immanuel College. They have also nurtured your love of Israel, with regular visits, and most recently on a fact-finding tour around Jerusalem with dad, visiting the most important sites.

Now,it was always my policy to allow those attending Jewish schools to dispense with the barmitzvah test on receipt of a positive report from the Head of their Jewish Studies department regarding the barmitzvah’s progress. In your case, Ben, I received an absolutely glowing report, highlighting your mature understanding of biblical texts and your progress in the study of Talmud and Rashi. The report ended that you participate well in class discussions; you have a positive attitude to Torah study and your behaviour is impeccable. I don’t think my teachers wrote that about me at your age! Well done. You are also a very sociable and out-going young man, with exceptional people skills and very conscious of other people’s needs and feelings. This made you the natural choice to be head boy of Matilda Marks Kennedy Primary school, as well as the recipient of Immanuel’s Pastoral Care Award for the term in recognition of your thoughtfulness to pupils and staff. Ben, what more is there to say? All this, together with your footballing, cricketing, golf, skiing, athletics and tennis, skills, makes you a fine and rounded young man. You can truly be very proud of your achievements to date, culminating this morning in the excellent manner in which you read your parashiyyot, maftir and haftarah.

Having already referred to your Barmitzvah sidrah, let me draw out one further message that I know I can give to you without embarrassing anyone.Unlike your dear parents, there are many people who are ostentatious and who want everyone to know what they have achieved and what they do for others. Now, when the brothers of Joseph were presented to Pharaoh and he asked them about their profession, they answered, ro’ei tzo’n avadekha, ‘your servants are shepherds (47:3).’ That is, ‘we look after sheep.’ Significantly, that was not the answer that Joseph had primed them beforehand to give. He had told them to say, anshei mikneh hayyu avadekha, ‘your servants are owners of herds of cattle (36:33/34). Why did they depart from their script?

It has been suggested that Joseph wanted to boost the status of his brothers in the eyes of Pharaoh. He didn’t want them to present themselves as mere shepherds, the lowest in the social scale, people generally without education, particular skills or business capability. He wanted them to be regarded as an asset to Egypt, people of wealth, status and talent that could benefit the country. Hence he told them to say that they were anshei mikneh, ranchers, owners of herds. The brothers, on the other hand, were simple folk, who did not put any such score by wealth and status. They knew that possessions were not a measure of a person, but rather what he or she does with their wealth. And hence they had no qualms about telling Pharaoh that they were simple shepherds. They were not out to impress, neither were they impressed by the opulence of Pharaoh’s palace.

This is an admirable philosophy, Ben. Be yourself. With your nature, you’ll be more admired for that than for your wealth or other achievements. Follow your family tradition. Care for others; work and raise funds to support the less fortunate; love, defend, support and visit Israel regularly, and bring continued pride and joy to your beloved parents, grandparents and family, your community and your people.