Barmitzvah of Laurence Spellman
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
Shabbat 24th September 2005

My dear Laurence,

Heartfelt mazal tov to you on attaining your Barmitzvah and congratulations on the excellent way you layened your maftir and haftarah.

Your dear parents, Sheryl and Max, are proud and popular members of our shul who play their full part in our community life. They inherited from their parents a tradition of service. Your paternal grandparents were stalwarts of the New West End Shul for some 40 years, and your paternal grandma was an active member of the 35s Group which demonstrated and petitioned for the release of Natan Sharanski and other refusniks from their imprisonment in the Soviet Union.

Your mum grew up in Bournemouth, and she is indeed a fine Ambassador for her community. BBYO was always an important factor in her life, and she was its social secretary, following in the footsteps of her dad, Barrie, who was a Youth Adviser for BBYO for many years. Your grandma Jaquie was also an active supporter of many of the Bournemouth community’s organisations.

So you certainly know, Laurence, what Jewish identity involves. It means ‘identification’ – with synagogue life, Jewish values and support of Israel.

You have started developing your own Jewish identity. You have been given a good Jewish education, in Sinai and now at JFS. You have been through our toddlers, Children’s and Intermediate services, but until now you have preferred to daven next to your dad in the main shul, rather than graduating before Barmitzvah to the youth service. You have also enjoyed your 2 years at SMILE.

You are a keen swimmer. You are very fashion conscious, and your mum relies on you to help her choose her clothes. You also have a couple of quite unusual hobbies, such as trampolining and cooking. I suppose that is the origin of the French term haut Cuisine. Too subtle?

Let me leave you with a message from your Barmitzvah sidrah:

Your Barmitzvah sidrah refers to the duty of the ancient Israelite farmer to bring a gift of the first fruits and cereals of his harvest to the Temple. An act of great self-restraint and discipline was involved in this. The farmer had invested a goodly amount of his money, his time and his effort in his land: in purchasing seed, fertiliser, in hiring help, in equipment, in sowing, irrigating, hoeing, weeding, tending, reaping, sorting, boxing and labelling it all – an investment for which he would have to wait for six to eight months of the year before it could be harvested and marketed, and before it could produce profits and income.

Imagine his great excitement when that moment arrived. Imagine his impatience to taste and to market the fruit of his labours! And yet, just at that moment, the Torah steps in and says: ‘Hold it! You can’t just go and eat or use the luscious new produce of your land. At least, not just yet. For there is still one essential act that you have not yet done, an act without which you have no right to enjoy any of the produce of that land. You have not acknowledged to God your infinite gratitude for the gift of that land. Because the one thing the Jew must not do, is take for granted the gift of the Land of Israel, and our divinely-ordained right to it.’ And this is as true today as it was when our ancestors lived in that land in Temple times, some three thousand years ago.

And what did the farmer have to say when he brought his first fruits to the Temple? He had to draw attention to the fact that there was a lengthy period that his ancestors had to wait - more impatiently than him – before they could enjoy that special gift of a land of their own. The farmer had to make that declaration, Arami oved avi, ‘My father [Jacob] was a wandering Aramean, who went down to Egypt, and whose offspring had to stay in that land of bondage for hundreds of years until, by God’s grace, they were redeemed and brought to the Promised land.

Even more than those ancient farmers, we, who live in the aftermath of the Holocaust, know full well that that land is our nation’s sole lifeline, our means of identity, of religious and cultural expression, our primary source of pride and national self-respect.

We can appreciate therefore why it was that the ancient Israelite farmer could not just exploit that land as if were exclusively his own, as if it were mere soil, rather than soul: a nation’s spiritual and national home. And that is why he had first to offer a gift of thanksgiving and gratitude to the God of Israel who gave his people that land as a sign of the covenant between them. He had to delay asserting his own rights of ownership, and demonstrate first that he appreciated its wider and deeper significance for his people, for his religion, for his identity, for his security in a hostile world, and for his continued existence as a Jew.

Barmitzvah is also the long-awaited moment of harvest, when all the love, care and concern invested in you, and all your religious training, bears fruit, and you are credited now with having the maturity to plan your own future and determine your own destiny.

Many teenagers launch straight into enjoying the fruits of life and the pleasures of adulthood. Many indulge in so much of that enticing fruit – much of which, by Judaism’s standards, is forbidden fruit – that they end up doing incalculable physical and moral harm, to themselves.

So the first message to be derived from your Barmitzvah portion of the first fruits is to remember how the Israelite farmer had to exercise some discipline, and wait until the moment was right for him to enjoy what was available to him. Enjoy your youth. It is a most wonderful stage of life. Be assured, however, that it passes so very quickly, and before long you will be burdened with exams to determine your place at university, student debt, and the pressure of finding a job in a competitive system.

So don’t be desperate to be an adult before your time. Remember that the ancient farmer had first to bring those fruits to the Temple. And you can learn a lesson for life from that. If ever you are unsure about whether to indulge in one of life’s doubtful fruits, just imagine yourself standing in the Temple, as you are today, and announcing that intention to the congregation. If you would be embarrassed to do so, then you can be sure you are on the wrong track.

And secondly, remember the content of the farmer’s Arami oved avi declaration, which is quoted in the Pesach Haggadah. It is a profound appreciation for the gift of the land of his ancestors, after years of exile and oppression. Remain loyal to that age-old dream of ours, now a reality, of having a land of own. Remember how we are still beset by hostile nations, politicians, leaders and individuals, who still begrudge us that land and who are determined to deny our historical claim to it and to take it away from us by force or political pressure.

Israel needs the first fruits of every young man and woman, by way of their support, their loyalty, their willingness to uphold her cause, to spend time there and help in whatever way they can. May your heart be stirred to make your special Arami oved avi declaration, proudly affirming that your people, your community, your faith and your land can rely on you in the future. And may you continue to bring great joy and pride to your dear mum and dad, your grandparents and all your family. Amen.