Bechuchotai 5779 – An Affirmation of My Judaism 55 Years After My Bar Mitzvah

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

There are so many topics that I could speak about today:

—Nancy and I recently took a trip to trip to Japan. The radically different culture of the Japanese could easily be woven into a D’var.

—My recent bicycle marathon to support the MS Society. Throughout that very long ride, I kept thinking, “There must be a D’var somewhere in here!” In fact, much of what I will discuss was “written” in my head during that ride.

—Today’s parashah. This will get a mention in just a moment.

Fitting for a bar mitzvah boy, I decided to discuss my own faith and my affirmation of that faith

First, since we’re here today to celebrate the 55th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, I would like to tell you about my most powerful bar mitzvah memory and the exact moment – yes, moment –  when I actually became a bar mitzvah. . . .

Today’s parashah provides a good launching pad for discussing why today I strongly affirm my Judaism. Perhaps the main feature of the parashah is a listing of Gd’s rewards and punishments that come about depending on whether or not one follows Gd’s commandments.

But . . . does Gd really act in the world in this way? To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe the rewards and punishments for certain types of behavior as described in the parashah were simply the best way to influence the Jewish people, much as one talks to a toddler. After all, at the time this was written, the Jewish people at that time were still in their “toddlerhood,” if you will. Are we really ultimately rewarded for acting morally and following the dictates set forth in the Torah? And punished if we do not? Can any of us really know for sure?  Not me.

Emet Ve’Emunah, the statement of beliefs of Conservative Judaism, published by the United Synagogue, JTS and the Rabbinical Assembly,  acknowledges that when we think about Gd, we are filled with perplexity, confusion, uncertainty and doubt. That’s what it says! And that describes me.

What I do have more certainty about is that people whose happiness and joy are pegged to material things are doomed to despair and frustration. But by internalizing the profound messages and lessons of the Torah and our Great Books we can get past this frustration and infuse our lives with purpose, experiencing a far more durable inner peace and happiness.

Well, what are some of those profound messages in our teachings?

—The sanctity of life

—The infinite worth of the individual

—Justice, Justice you will pursue

—Love your neighbor as yourself

I could go on and on.

I understand that it’s possible that we might be nothing more than a swirl of dust and there may be nothing beyond what humans can see and feel, but I live better – more fulfilled – when I do so with a sense of a larger purpose as dictated by these Judaic principles. In that sense, Judaism “works” for me. It provides me a sense of mission – a sense of purpose.

And here’s more: even if I was certain that I am indeed just a swirl of dust and there is nothing beyond – no ultimate reward or punishment – nothing – even with that certainty, I wouldn’t regret or change the things that bring richness and joy to my life. These include:

—my Shabbat mornings here at Kehillat Chaverim

—my faithful relationship with an “other” – Nancy

—The charitable giving Nancy and I do

—The message of the Passover sedar – to act as though I personally was a slave in Egypt, so as to remember the downtrodden.

So here’s the key point: to me: whether Gd in fact acts in the world doesn’t really matter in terms of how I live my ife.

See, even if my perceptions about Gd are filled with confusion, uncertainty, perplexity and doubt, these perceptions don’t apply to Judaism. On the contrary, And if it winds up that I was wrong, I would still not feel as though my life was spent in vain. Oh, I will perhaps wish that I could have enjoyed shrimp scampi or a BLT sandwich, but still, still, I would not have given up these Shabbat mornings here at the kehillah with friends, and I would not have regretted learning Torah to the extent I have, because those things have given me much joy and sense of purpose. So if all this Jewish and Gd stuff turns out to be a delusion, as delusions go, this is a good one. And in fact, it’s so good, that I believe it may really not be delusional at all.

Those profound, enduring lessons of Judaism that I mentioned earlier – equality, the infinite worth of the individual, the sanctity of life, the pursuit of justice . . . those lessons were radical in their time. Who had ever heard of equality and justice in the ancient world? And so even if they weren’t Divinely inspired – if they had come from a relative that was that prescient and wise, you might not adhere to all else that relative had to say, but you would sure listen!

Those lessons, and the miracle  – truly, the miracle – of Jewish continuity after all we as a people have been through, instill in me a strong belief that it is up to me and to other Jews to bear witness to these fundamental principles and to be Gd’s partner in the unfolding history of humankind. That’s why I do what I do and why I care so deeply about Jewish continuity. So whether I’m rewarded or punished, whether Gd acts in the world or doesn’t – none of that matters a bit to me.

On this, my bar mitzvah anniversary, I conclude with a paragraph from Jonathan Sacks’s “Letters in a Scroll.” This may sound familiar to some of you – I read it at our Pesach sedars each year.

“I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know of a more profound one.”

Shabbat Shalom