My eldest son is two months from his bar mitzvah with us (two weeks from the one he’s doing with his father). He’s working with Rabbi Evon Yakar of Adventure Rabbi, an out-of-the-box outfit which really empowers families to make their Jewish observances unique, meaningful and very much their own.
I was privy to one of their lessons over Skype recently, in which Rabbi Evon asked Asher what he thought – what he truly thought – about a particular Bible story. Meaning, did he believe it to be true, or perhaps a metaphor or lesson told through story?
In more liberal streams of religion we are free to say that maybe not every word came from God. Perhaps it was divinely inspired writing.
That doesn’t make us any less Jewish. Literary criticism has been a long and studied tradition, not only in religious circles, but in academia and throughout the secular world. This document in front of me, this blog even, do I believe it to contain Truth? Or variations on that theme?
I read recently about the story of the Sin of the Golden Calf and the interpretations of the events in that story. What struck me this time was that God gave a second set of tablets with the 10 Commandments written on them to the Israelites, a man-made set to replace the God-given tablets once they were smashed.
Those words – man-made – really stood out. This writer interpreted God’s benevolence even though the Israelites may not have been deserving of the gift. I saw it another way.
Simply, the set of tablets that lasted were the ones made by humans. Those from the hands of the Divine were smashed before they could be put into use. There was drama and intrigue and disbelief before it could even strike a chord in the hearts of the masses.
The ones made by humans were another story altogether.
Perhaps the direct word of God is too intense for humans to bear. Jews don’t believe in intermediaries between humans and God; we believe in a direct relationship, which makes prayer pretty powerful when it comes from the heart.
Whether like a relationship with a beloved, or with a parent, or with a friend or mentor, it is a one-on-one relationship of our own making. It grows deeper or weaker as we ebb and flow through life. And we have only to answer to ourselves and to God for all of the changes therein.
So for me, the lesson in the Golden Calf was that the manmade tablets had a better chance of lasting than that which descends from above. Perhaps we need to have a hand in creation to have a stake in it.
Which is why I love the opportunity my son has – which, frankly, he gave himself by choosing to work with Rabbi Evon for this bar mitzvah – to decide for himself at the tender age of 13 what it means to him to be a Jew, what a bar mitzvah is all about, how he wants to integrate this ancestral tradition into his life today, and tomorrow.