A Mountain That One Cannot Fall Off
Bob Rosenthal, a poet and a fellow member of Town and Village Synagogue, had a ceremony this past Shabbat marking his adult bar-mitzvah. In his speech (below), Bob explains what it means to be an adult bar-mitzvah, how he became more observant, and his own continuing spiritual struggle as part of a community.
Today I am a family.
I am a family that gives comfort to one another. A family that meets for minyan. A family that prepares food. A family that visits the sick. A family that buys books for each other. A family that gathers on cold nights to learn the words of sages. A family that comes to your home when you grieve.
Today completes a vow I made in 1963 when I became 13. I vowed to someday become a bar mitzvah. Although synagogue life and Jewish home practice were unknown to me in my childhood, I experienced twinges to learn what Judaism was about. But I forgot about that vow. It was the vow ten years later that my new father-in-law, Aaron, made me give while we slipped under his dining room table. It was Seagram’s VO that put us there. He made me promise that my children would be more Jewish than I was. This was an easy promise to keep. Kids were not on the horizon. Again that vow was forgotten till kids did come and my wife said, “Let’s look for Hebrew schools.” I finally decided to come into this synagogue and found Kabalat Shabbat. I loved all the divine mumbling. The language was a family of sounds that tribally resonated and held me to their sway. Hit-or’ri Hit-or’ri -- “Awake and arise,” we sing to open Kaballat Shabbat in “L’kha Dodi.” Isaiah’s visions of Jerusalem clothed in splendor from today’s reading greeted me on my first visit to a service! I employed an oft-used method of learning called osmosis. I soaked up tunes and customs, and slowly made inroads into Hebrew and doing mitzvot. I have joy to be among family. Thank you -- all of you: Cantor Postman, Rabbis Siebert and Sosland, Teachers Pollack and Green, holy prodders Nauen and Oliver. I am grateful to my birth family who has traveled from afar and to my found family who is always here for me. And there is one someone who led to me her father’s challenge, and led me to this shul and bore us children who preceded me to this bima -- I could love no one if I did not love Rochelle Rose so.
As I began to feel the desire to read Torah and contemplated the possibility of becoming a bar mitzvah, I hesitated because of anger over my lack of Jewish education. However, as Jean Luc Goddard wrote in his recent movie Elegy for Love, “Sometimes we outlive our problems.” Today is my 54th Jewish birthday. My solar birthday is in the dog days of summer. Everyone is somewhere else. But the 4th of Elul is an appointment everyone has to keep. The Shofar blows and the time has come. Time to awaken the peacemakers in the family of who we are. Isaiah proclaims, “I am he I am he who consoles.”
The portion of Isaiah we read today is the fulcrum of the seven haftorot of consolation. The month of Elul has begun and heralds the high holidays in the next moon. Last month, Rochelle and I were hiking in Acadia National Park. We chose a cliffside climb. When we reached the point where the path could no longer hug the mountainside, there were iron rings pounded into the cliff to ascend to the next level. I thought of my bar mitzvah preparation as I grabbed onto the first ring. I realized that Torah learning is like climbing a mountain that one cannot fall off. Elul is the time to start that deep hike through your current life -- you step into the tenacious mud of hurts you’ve inflicted and sins you’ve committed. You climb the uneven path of worthy actions and love given and love received -- still you must go further along the sheer cliffs to reach a spiritual height. There is always a spot on that trail where you have to climb a ladder of rings pounded into the cliff. If you look down to the mess of existence you might not step up on the ring. Hand over hand, foot over foot, you can pull your self up. Those rings that support you and enable you are acts of contrition, the feeling of prayer, and earnest desire to live up on the heights.
Isaiah parallels this effort. His immediate view is the near end of the exile in Babylonia. He must ready the minds of the people Israel to let the suffering and pain of abuse fall away and return to Zion empowered and free. He recounts the horrors that befell us. We were made to drink the Cup of Reeling. We were made to lie down so that the other nations could trample across our back. Uri Uri -- Awake awake -- Isaiah calls out those words I heard at Kabbalat Shabbat. Shake off the dust and arise. He presents the wondrous picture of Jerusalem: “Awake Awake clothe yourself in strength, o Zion; array yourself in robes of splendor, O Holy City of Jerusalem!” And at the close he commands Israel -- Suru Suru -- Turn aside, Away -- Back to Zion. No longer are Israelites the pavement to be trod upon -- now they march with the Eternal leading the way and the Eternal following to catch up any stragglers.
This is what families do; they catch up the stragglers. I feel like I have been a straggler and I have not been left behind. This congregational family has kept its arms outstretched to me for almost a score of years. Making it to morning minyan has worked its slow appeal on me. Recently I started to take care of the yahrzeit plaques in the sanctuary. Lighting little lights and meeting the congregation’s families of blessed memory each week creates fresh constellations to keep us whole and vacate loneliness. It’s important to feel the myriad of ways we act as a family to support each other. Now the task is not just to catch up but also to lead. And help others who desire to find the path that leads to the trail, which becomes a climb. Does that climb end in glory? No, it starts with glory! Helping us to find the path are the prophets.
We just read in Shoftim: “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed.” (Deu. 18:15) This statement follows the restrictions on the occult arts. The need for communication with the Eternal and the need to get answers about what will happen will instead be provided by prophets. The Israelites elevated the prophet far higher than other ancient peoples. The prophet is one who will communicate God’s words. Moses reminds the people that they asked not to hear the actual voice of the Lord lest they die. God is pleased and states that he will raise up prophets: “I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him.” (18:18) Jeffrey Tigay points out that the Prophet’s primary role was to speak on “all matters of national life: “Their role reflects the unprecedented seriousness with which Israelite religion believed that God and not the king was the true sovereign, and that human kingship was a man, and institution, established by prophetic mediation and hence subordinate to prophetic authority.” (Tigay 177)
The Lord has given the words and given us the path. “I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with my hand.” (Is 51:16) The age of pure prophecy is over. But, as Isaiah says, his Godly words are now in our mouths. This is the glory of the synagogue experience. God’s words are in our mouths. This means that new prophecy is not completely absent from our lives.
The adjective prophetic is also used to describe the ability to see inner truths before others do. Midrash says, “The dream is an unripe form of prophecy.” It is human to dream and human to carry the raw material of prophecy within us. I dare say we could use some old-school prophets to rebuke politicians and the body politic without concern for opinion polls. Prophets have never been popular. Another midrash says that Jeremiah was chosen to prophesize before he was conceived. He objected to the Holy one. “What prophet ever came before them whom they did not seek to slay? When you set up Moses and Aaron over them to act in their behalf, did they not wish to stone them? When you set up curly-haired Elijah over them to act in their own behalf, they mocked and ridiculed him, saying, ‘Look how he frizzes his locks, this fancy-haired fellow.’”
So too would a modern prophet be received. For twenty years, I was secretary to Allen Ginsberg, a poet widely described as prophetic. Today on my way to shul I saw his face hanging from the lampposts. I was not hallucinating -- there is a huge arts fair in the East Village inspired by his poem “Howl.” “Howl” has prophetic content in the classic sense. Look to the admonition of the Moloch section. Ginsberg equates the ancient Canaanite fire god to whom parents sacrificed children to the cannibalistic, money-based machinery of our age. In cadence and message, as terrible as Lamentations, Ginsberg wrote: “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!” Norman Mailer called Ginsberg “the bravest man in America.”
But Ginsberg never claimed to be an agent of a holy voice. He was a human voice of candor. As the ancient prophets did, he placed his messages in the language of the common person. We read the prophets for they are not mysterious. They paid the human price of their gift and burden. We honor them by chanting and contemplating the comfort and the challenge they still provide. For us, the first step of teshuvah is the bravest. Unripe dreams are within us all; the voices of prophets are on the street waiting to be heard. Our rabbis say: Ever since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to fools and children.”
I am part fool and part child. I am the shlub in the back and these are my words:
We are on the road to Zion but there is no road
We are praying for directions but hear only our own voices
We suffer faults and the chains that bind us to them
Yet footfalls follow footfalls through the echoing night
The smallest match struck in the darkness
is a mighty illumination
So bright we must cover our eyes as with the Sh’ma
Listen for daybreak’s blasts
There is so much behind you
There is no reason not to go on -- to the summit
You will find a part of you already there
Patiently waiting to see your face