Thoughts on the Occasion of My Son's Bar Mitzvah
Author's note: It's Friday afternoon as I write and I am scheduling this post to publish on Saturday morning when our son Ezra will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. What follows is a brief speech that, God willing, I'll be giving about the time this post appears. Begging the reader's indulgence, I thought that it bears on some of our concerns here at ENV.
With Ezra's permission I want to share a surprising fact about him. About two months ago Ezzie conceived an unexpected ambition: He wanted to jump out of a plane flying at ten thousand feet in altitude and parachute to the Earth. I asked him how he got this idea in his head and he said he had seen a picture of some paratroopers, and boom! That was it.
He was sold. He was absolutely determined to go skydiving for his bar mitzvah present.
The simulated and safe indoor skydiving experience at iFly in Renton was of no interest whatsoever. It had to be the real thing.
Fortunately for me, as his father, I found that liability law was my best friend. If you're under 18 you can't sign a waiver indemnifying a skydiving company, like the popular one nearby us in Snohomish County. And your parents can't sign for you. The result was that Ezra couldn't find a single local business that would take him out in a plane and let him jump.
I thought I was saved from having to give a simple flat-out no until Ezzie's Internet research led him to a company in Abbotsford, British Columbia, that is open to all ages for tandem jumping.
The answer is no. You'll have to settle for an Xbox.
Our beloved son Ezra has many virtues, including determination and courage, in which he far outdoes me. You couldn't pay me enough to jump out of a plane, I can tell you that much.
Ezzie, today's Torah reading, Nitzavim-Vayelech, from the book of Deuteronomy, tells of Moses' final words to the Jewish people and his last command to Joshua. He told them both, in nearly the same words, "Be strong and of good courage." You read that so beautifully, reflecting your amazing hard work and determination to learn how to chant from the Torah, with help from Rabbi Elishevitz, despite the many distractions of our highly active and occasionally noisy household.
We are all very proud of you for that achievement: Mom and I, Banina and Uncle Mikey, your quietly admiring siblings, and all our other friends who are here today -- and Nika and I thank you most sincerely for being with us.
Far more so, however, we're proud of you for the strong, loving, and thoughtful young man you have shown yourself to be, and promise to be in the future.
The Talmud teaches that we should not esteem lightly the blessing bestowed even by an ordinary man. In that spirit I want to give you the same blessing that Moses did to Joshua. "Be strong and of good courage."
Courage comes in three different kinds: Physical, social, and moral. If you're ready to go skydiving, you've already got the physical courage down cold.
I know that on September 7, 2019, you'll be gearing up with your parachute for your first skydive. And God willing I'll be there too, on the ground, covering my eyes with my hands.
By social courage I mean the strength to think and speak your mind no matter what other people tell you should think and say.
A great man I had the privilege of working for started a magazine nearly 60 years ago and the first issue announced that its mission was to "Stand athwart history yelling: Stop!" "Athwart" means against, or in opposition to -- right in the middle of the path where everyone else thinks that our world and our culture should be going.
Your Hebrew namesakes, Ezra HaSofer and Avraham Avinu, did exactly that in their times, courageously defying their neighbors and countrymen, Jews and non-Jews respectively, for the sake of the truth as they saw it.
Conformism is one of the curses of our time. If anyone offers to think, or imagine, or feel for you, please politely decline. Take satisfaction in being in the minority, especially when the minority is hated, mocked, and despised -- which is Jewish history in a nutshell. When you do happen to find yourself agreeing with the majority, the "consensus," and especially if you feel good about that, think twice.
Let your instinctive sympathy be for other minorities, especially ones that are not powerful and esteemed. As the book of Devarim also says, "Love therefore the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Ezzie, I know you love stories about heroes, ever since you and I read The Hobbit together all those years ago, which set you on your career path as a voracious reader of fantasy literature. Moral courage may be the toughest kind of courage, producing the very noblest heroes.
It also leads to the least applause, since its theater of operations is often our most private moments. "Who is the mighty man?" the Mishnah asks in Pirke Avot. "He who controls his evil impulse."
Speaking of applause, here is one caution. A stubborn courage can easily shade over into arrogance. Let your courage be tempered, refined, by humility.
If our tradition teaches anything it's that even though the world tells us that we and our generation are the greatest, the best and wisest ever, actually the opposite is true. Our wisdom and virtue are less than that of any generations that came before. We live in the hope that wisdom is to be found, preeminently, among the dead and their words. No awareness could be more Jewish than that.
Ezzie, you were born at a scary time, September 7, 2001, just four days before 9/11, the most cataclysmic event of my lifetime. We nearly didn't have a moyel for your bris because Rabbi Stroks was driving down from Vancouver and had difficulty getting past border security with his collection of sharp knives.
It took courage on your part to come into the world just then, and Mom and I are so glad and grateful that you did.
So, Ezra, "Be strong and of good courage." Be kind, generous, humble, and true, always. We sure do love you a lot.